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THEATER Summer pride shines on in five plays
by Kerry Reid

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Pride Films and Plays fills the summer season with five plays in PAC Pride Fest. ( The "PAC" stands for Pride Arts Center—not a political fundraising tool. ) The pieces will play in rotating rep, with the first two in the line-up—Pink Orchids and The Green Bay Tree—sharing the Buena Theater stage through early July, to be followed by Fucking Men in July and Hurricane Damage and Holding the Man in August—the last three on the Broadway stage.

The shows are certainly diverse in style and pedigree. British playwright Patrick Cash's Pink Orchids is a U.S. premiere, featuring five monologues about living with HIV. The Green Bay Tree by Mordaunt Shairp premiered in London's West End in 1933 before moving to Broadway, where a young Laurence Olivier starred opposite his then-wife, Jill Esmond. But Shairp's story of a young man torn between his fiancée and his mentor, rich with gay subtext, has seldom been produced since then.

Very little is subtext in Joe DiPietro's Fucking Men, in which Arthur Schnitzler's fin-de-siecle Vienna sexual merry-go-round, La Ronde, gets a contemporary makeover. It was last seen locally in 2010 at Bailiwick Chicago—the now-defunct company that took over Zak's former Bailiwick Repertory. This production adds choreography to tie together the interrelated scenes. ( Yes, DiPietro wrote the decidedly more mainstream I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, too. )

The fest also boasts a world premiere in Kevin Brofsky's Hurricane Damage, in which a couple questions their long-term commitment in the wake of a tropical storm and a visit from a globetrotting friend and photographer. Finally, Australian Tommy Murphy's Holding the Man also chronicles a long-term relationship, based on Timothy Conigrave's memoir of the same name, which won the 1995 UN Human Rights Award for Non-Fiction and was turned into a 2015 film.

One thing that does stand out from perusing the lists of plays and artists this year is the paucity of women writers and directors.

Zak, who stepped down as artistic director at PFP in 2016 but continues to curate the summer series, acknowledged the lack of women this year, but also noted that part of what he looks for in the mix of plays selected is "a little bit of looking back. And making sure that people don't forget the history and doing some new stuff as well."

He mentioned the anthology For the Gay Stage: 456 Plays from Aristophanes to Peter Gill by Drewey Wayne Gunn as one tool for researching plays, while noting "There are probably less than 20 plays by women in the anthology." However, he also noted that "The conception is that gay plays started with The Boys in the Band." ( Mart Crowley's seminal 1968 play is now getting a high-profile Broadway revival under Joe Mantello's direction. )

The Green Bay Tree is the oldest show in the mix this year. Director Amy Sarno, who most recently served as artistic director for Erasing the Distance, a company that seeks to erase stigma around mental illness through creating documentary theater, brings a Chicago flavor to the show.

"The dramaturg Rick Gale and I worked on flipping it from a London context to a 1930s Chicago context," she said. "The fact that it's unknown let us bring it back and also think about our own local history. What is often assumed is that prior to the 1960s, there weren't people who were out, and that's really false. In fact, Chicago and New York were two big places that were pretty out. What's interesting is that Chicago was actually blossoming in terms of drag shows, across all different populations and across the whole city."

Fucking Men also gets some twists, thanks in part to the casting of trans actor Lars Ebsworth. Ebsworth also serves as artistic director for Trans Voices Cabaret Chicago—a Chicago version of a musical theater showcase that has been happening in New York for over a year. After appearing last fall in the musical The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier ( presented in association with PFP and playwright Jay Paul Deratany ), Ebsworth is excited to further represent trans identity on a Pride stage. "I'm very excited to run around with a strap-on all summer," said Ebsworth. "For me, it's very rare that as someone who was identified female at birth, I get to play male onstage."

At 22, Ebsworth is also one of the youngest people involved in PAC Fest. Zak noted that part of what he looked for in projects this year were "things that were right for some of our company members who haven't been in shows for a while." He also said "People who are older—that's also our subscriber base and donor age and sometimes those people come in and say 'We don't see our stories.'" Longtime PFP company members Tom Chiola ( who started his "second career" as an actor in the original "Fucking Men" after years as a lawyer and Circuit Court judge ) and Chuck Berglund star in Hurricane Damage.

Zak noted that he and Rodriguez struggle to find the balance in LGBTQ voices throughout the season, as well as looking for more inclusive casting. But for now, he hopes that the summer series gives audiences a chance to "do a little bit of looking back, as well as looking at some new stuff."

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