Thursday, June 23, 2011

Unnatural Acts

"Unnatural Acts" at Classic Stage Company, June 18, 2011

This new dramatization by the Plastic Theatre chronicles the events leading up to the "secret court" hearings conducted by Harvard University in 1920, following the apparent suicide of Cyril Wilcox.

Amit Paley, a student journalist for The Harvard Crimson, discovered a reference to the incident in university archives.  Harvard eventually allowed Mr. Paley to review the documents, prompting Tony Speciale of Plastic Theatre to make his own investigation.

The events of the story tumble like dominoes almost immediately as the hearings begin.  First interviewed is Kenneth Day (Roe Bartrampf), the jock of the group who resided in the dormitory where everything took place.  Ken folds quickly, confessing to sexual acts with his dorm mates.  The ring leader is Ernest Roberst (Nick Westrate), the son of a prominent US Congressman.   he attempts to create solidarity among the remaining students facing the hearings, encouraging all to deny the charges.  The remaining students include senior pre-med Nathaniel Wollf (Joe Curnutte), aspiring actor Keith Smerage (Frank De Julio), pre-law Joseph Lumbard (Will Rogers), his roommate, Dartmouth transfer Edward Say (Jess Burkle), senior Eugene Cummings (Brad Koed), senior and drama club president Stanley Gilkey (Max Jenkins), tutor Harold Saxton (Devin Norik) and classics professor Donald Clark (Jerry Marsini).

As Cummings, Mr. Koed serves as something of a narrator, providing the exposition from time to time.  Mr. Bartrampf's Ken Day is every inch the athlete, fully exposed in an early shower scene.  Mr. Burkle's Say swishes and minces bitterly.  He and Mr. Rogers pull off an impressive scene at the top of Act II when their testimony monologues overlap, both supporting and contradicting each other in their individual moments of panic at the ramifications of the hearings' outcome.  It's a beautifully crafted sequence.  A similar juxtaposition occurs with Messrs. Wollf and Smerage, who had their own affair.  As Mr. Wollf testifies, Mr. Smerage delivers his audition monologue, reciting from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Mr. Wollf betrays Mr. Smerage, as Antony's speech explores the betrayal of Cleopatra and Caesar, another clever scene.

Messrs Burkle and Jenkins turn in outstanding performances.  Mr. Burkle's Ernest is spoiled, fierce, flaming and unrepentant.  Mr. Jenkins' Stanley is mean, cruel, vicious and vindictive, turning on his friends instantly and ends up as one of the only two found not guilty by the court.

This is an impressive and important moment in gay history that shouldn't be overlooked.  Mr. Speciale and his company have documented this dark period when even the hint of homosexuality could ruin reputations and even incite suicide.  The play is well-structured and well-directed by Mr. Speciale.

My only real criticism is a bizarre Bill T. Jones-style choreography that accompanies Mr. Koed's final testimony at the end of the play.  All the staging up to this point was clear and purposeful, powerful and effective.  This change in story-telling does little more than distract from the testimony.

Unnatural Acts runs through July 10.  Get tickets here.