Anything was possible

From DIFFA to the stage, John Ahrens has witnessed the evolving art of HIV

YA GOTTA HAVE ‘HEART’ | Ahrens, above, was moved to tears by the revival of ‘The Normal Heart,’ which captured the panic of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s; below left, designs from two decades of DIFFA auctions, which improved greatly from the days of ‘ugly fabrics.’ (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

John Ahrens ended up in Dallas accidentally, but it’s an accident that may have saved his life. In the late 1960s, he was enrolled at Yale

University’s drama department, studying theater alongside classmates like Christopher Durang, Sigourney Weaver, Wendy Wasserstein and Meryl Streep. It was a magical time.

“I lived in New York until the late 1970s,” he recalls. “Back then, in 1976 in New York, anything was possible — you had Paul [the gay character] onstage in A Chorus Line, it was post-Stonewall.” The Continental Baths had acts like Bette Midler and Barry Manilow before anyone knew who they were. “Later you had La Cage aux Folles with Georges singing ‘I Am What I Am.’”

In other words, it was a great time to be gay.

Or so it seemed. Ahrens moved to Dallas in 1978, putting him 1,300 miles away when the AIDS epidemic hit New York hard. Ahrens first realized how serious the situation was when he called a friend to inquire about a former roommate; the roommate had died.

All those emotions came flooding back to him last month, when he made a pilgrimage to New York specifically to see the revival of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s 1985 play about the AIDS crisis. Ahrens caught a Sunday matinee; four hours later, it walked away with three Tony Awards including best revival of a play.

“It was amazing,” Ahrens says, choking up slightly. “It so accurately describes the panic everyone was living through, especially those still in the closet. It has gotten better” over the years.

That seems to be the consensus. The Normal Heart arrived in New York about the same time as another play about AIDS, As Is, but met with a very different reception. As Is made it to Broadway, where it was rewarded with three Tony Award nominations and the Drama Desk Award for outstanding new play. The Normal Heart remained off-Broadway, underground. And its angry political tone was eventually eclipsed by Tony Kushner’s two-part epic Angels in America.

But when’s the last time you heard someone talk about As Is? Meanwhile, Kramer’s play has earned cult status. (For years, Barbra Streisand tried to direct a film version.)

“The Normal Heart was so much of its time,”Ahrens opines, “but seeing it brought it all back. It captured the horrors of it all. The visualization of John Benjamin Hickey’s performance was so authentic — back then, you could look at someone and know they had HIV.”

It was a horrific time, but also one that spurred great achievement and sacrifice. “It changed a lot of people and made them get their shit together,” he says.

Ahrens, a respected costume designer, was present for the first auction of clothes from DIFFA, the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS. He still remembers the first piece he designed: A red leather number with a hoop skirt meant to evoke Christian Lacroix…“worn by a 6-foot-tall redhead.” (He’s referring to Dallas supermodel Jan Strimple, a long-time supporter of DIFFA and an AIDS activist, one of Ahrens’ oldest friends.)

It probably wasn’t his best work — back then, it was hard to do your best work.

“We all got our fabric from the same fashion line, and that line was really ugly,” he says. “Some of us were getting our fabric the night before the show.”

Things have changed. The designs became more fabulous, the designers more high-profile, the fabrics of better quality. But what Ahrens remembers most are the people — in particular, the lesbian community.

“They were the soldiers,” he says frankly. “Lory Masters and her generation? Hell, they took on so much,” caring for the mostly gay men who suffered.

Back then, even being associated with AIDS took heroics; today, gay and straight, HIV-positive and –negative men and women readily lend their names and faces to campaigns such as Faces of Life, Dallas-based photographer Jorge Rivas’ campaign for AIDS awareness. The stigma has diminished — but it is not gone.

Ahrens didn’t see The Normal Heart when it first ran in New York more than 25 years ago, but seeing it in 2011 truly made him see how far things have come — and how far they still have to go.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 1, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Tune & terror

‘TORTURE’ MEMO | The Bush Administration gets a kick in the pants in Christopher Durang’s hilarious absurdist comedy.

Tommy taps and a brown guy gets the 3rd degree in 2 disparate shows

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Christopher Durang is a no-holds-barred kind of playwright: You either give yourself over to his scathingly satiric absurdist romps entirely, or you sit there, nose firmly out of joint, dreading every outrageous moment of it.

I rather expected the audience at opening night of Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them to head out in droves come intermish. After all, this is the space that usually houses the agreeable romantic musical I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change; Torture bandies about the F word with and makes fun of George W. Bush. It shows a half-naked brown man being savagely beaten by a gun-toting Republican. This is not what you’d call “Highland Park-Friendly Theater.”

But I counted few defections in the well-attended debut. That’s enough to give you hope not only for theater, but for humanity.

Durang’s play — the title alone is a delicious bit of nonsense — probably has a limited shelf-life, with time-sensitive references to “shadow government,” Tom Stoppard’s Russian play cycle, Terry Schiavo and “torture memos.” 9/11 may remain a presence in our lives for decades, like Pearl Harbor, but the details surrounding it begin to fade into memory. Torture helps preserve them. It’s a comedy, but an angry comedy, with political history taking center stage.

Durang traffics in “types:” The dithery Leave It to Beaver-esque mom (Brandi Andrade), the Right Wing gun loving Fox News zombie (Terry Vandivort), the volatile Middle Eastern (Nas Medhi) who, even if he isn’t a terrorist, acts like one. (Perhaps his most subversive attack on the Neo-Con ideal of America is this line: “I believe food, electricity and housing should be free.”) None of them are completely innocent, but there’s no doubting Durang’s point-of-view: He’s pushing buttons like crazy. It’s an equally offensive comedy that makes you rot against more than root for.

It’s all pretty genius.

And all pretty well played, too. Lee Jamison hasn’t had a chance to do much comedy, what with serious turns in Equus and Closer to Heaven, but she’s excellent at it, with the timing about open physicality of a young Kim Cattrall. She plays Felicity, a flighty party girl who drunkenly marries Zamir (Medhi), who claims to be “Irish” but is in fact from a Muslim country.

Felicity takes Zamir home to meet her parents (Andrade, Vandivort); dad immediately suspects him of being a terrorist and sets up his own Abu Ghraib-like interrogation cell in his “butterfly room” to squeeze a plot out of him — and possibly launch World War III. “Even if our intelligence is wrong, it’s good foreign policy to bomb [some] countries,” dad declares. You can practically hear those words coming out of Dick Cheney’s mouth.

Although Durang’s use of repetition has a musicality to it, like a coda, the ending, which tries to rewrite everything that came before it, falls flat, and some of the scene changes get awkward. But a few quibbles don’t undercut the strengths of the performances by Jamison, Andrade and the very sexy Medhi. If loving a crazy Muslim is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

 

HAPPY TUNE | Native Texan Tommy Tune recounts a storied career in his one-man showcase.

Across town you won’t find a less similar show, but one just as easy to recommend. Tommy Tune just turned 72, but to watch the six-and-a-half-foot-tall Texan glide across the Fair Park Music Hall stage, sharing lessons about tap and life from his 50-year-career in show business (which he launched on the very same stage), you’d swear he was still just a kid hoping to make it big with his next audition. There’s a twinkle in his eye that age cannot dim. He’s a living legend of Broadway, and you can feel the history ooze from his every pour.

His showcase performance, Steps in Time, is basically a one-man show that traces his career from local chorus boy to the most honored performer-director in Tony history (nine awards and counting in four categories). You’re fully aware, even before he sings a song with the word “old-fashioned” in the verse, that he’s exactly that: A throwback to the big, splashy book musicals of the past. You can’t really imagine him directing Spring Awakening.

Except you kinda can. Tune sings a Green Day song in this show, arranged as a more traditional Broadway ballad, and while his theatricality man seem old-school, it’s also tremendously effective: Tune’s sentimental reflections on lost loves, on the greatest dancer he ever worked with (Charles “Honi” Coles) and even his post-encore exhibit are almost corny, but so gosh-durned sincere that they bring a tear to your eye. The show’s simplicity serves its star well: Tommy, and his lanky frame and his stories for 90 minutes. All history should be this entertaining.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 18, 2011.

—  John Wright

Applause • That’s so gay

Queer connections infiltrate lots of the upcoming season of arts

Tony Award-winning gay baritone Paulo Szot
Tony Award-winning gay baritone Paulo Szot, above, is a coup for the Dallas Opera; Pink Martini, below, gets the Meyerson jumping as the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s guest next week.

When you have a gay theater company (as Dallas does in Uptown Players) and another troupe dedicated to bringing Broadway musicals to town (as Dallas Summer Musicals does), you can be pretty confident in finding gay appeal in the lively arts.

But cast your gaze — and your gays — outside the usual focus, and there a lot more to discover across the arts in North Texas this season.

Chief among the highlights: The Dallas Opera’s coup in snagging dreamy gay baritone Paulo Szot, who won a much-deserved Tony for the revival of South Pacific, in the title role in Mozart’s Don Giovanni (Oct. 22). Director Stephen Lawless returns to helm Anna Bolena (Oct. 29). DallasOpera.org.

Of course, Uptown Players and DSM are getting into the action with their upcoming shows as well. UP’s final production of their 2010 season is the American premiere of Closer to Heaven, written to the songs of the Pet Shop Boys. The musical drama opens Oct. 1 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. The group will announce its 2011 season on Tuesday. UptownPlayers.org. And DSM’s national tour of Shrek is the State Fair Musical this year, opening Sept. 28. DallasSummerMusicals.org.

Next week, Theatre Three produces the local premiere of Songs from an Unmade Bed, a song cycle about a gay man working his way through a relationship. In previews from Sept. 3 in the Theatre Too space. Also in Theatre Too: Bruce R. Coleman’s latest play, the puppet show Tales from Mount Olympus, and spring welcomes Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them by Christopher Durang. Next up on the main stage is Laramie Project creator Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations, followed in December by the local premiere of The Drowsy Chaperone. Theatre3Dallas.com.

Contemporary Theatre of Dallas continues its presentation of Ed Graczyk’s world premiere Texas-set comedy-drama with a gay twist, Blue Moon Dancing, which runs through Sept. 12. Its 2010–11 season kicks off in October, and includes plays directed by Rene Moreno (The Trip to Bountiful) and Michael Serrecchia (Cheaters), plus a play by gay playwright Alan Ball (Five Women Wearing the Same Dress). ContemporaryTheatreofDallas.com.

The Dallas Theater Center launches its new season next month with the company’s gay artistic director Kevin Moriarty’s adaptation of Henry IV (opens Sept. 11).  The season ends with the musicals Cabaret and The Wiz. DallasTheaterCenter.org.

WaterTower Theatre begins its season with its artistic director, Terry Martin, directing and starring in Our Town (previewing on Sept. 24), and closes the season with Howard Ashman’s camptastic Little Shop of Horrors in July. WaterTowerTheatre.org.

Pink Martini
Pink Martini

Bass Hall brings in Spring Awakening on Nov. 9–10, followed by Mamma Mia, A Chorus Line, Beauty and the Beast and 9 to 5 later in the season. BassHall.org. In Dallas, the Lexus Broadway Series includes Young Frankenstein (Jan. 4) and Billy Elliot (June 8), while TITAS starts with MOMIX (Sept. 10) and the return of Complexions Contemporary Ballet (May 11). ATTPAC.org. The Dallas Black Dance Theatre stages a dance by local legend Bruce Wood in the spring as well (see story Page S6).

It’s not just opera and theater that goes gay, either: The Dallas Symphony Orchestra welcomes queer-led bank Pink Martini on Sept. 3, and The Music of Michael Jackson starts Sept. 1. DallasSymphony.org.

Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 27, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas

T3's gay-friendly season

Theatre 3 begins its 49th season this summer, and the line-up includes plenty of gay and gay-friendly content. In addition to shows under the auspices of folks like Terry Dobson and Bruce Coleman, the slate features these productions:

Songs from an Unmade Bed. This cycle of songs by lyricist Mark Campbell includes music from a variety of composers, including Jake Heggie, whose Moby-Dick is at the Winspear now. Opens Sept. 3 (in Theatre Too).

33 Variations. This hit from last year’s Broadway season was written by Laramie Project creator Moises Kaufman. Opens Sept. 30.

Tales from Mount Olympus. A puppet show premiere from local playwright-director Bruce R. Coleman. Opens Oct. 29 (in Theatre Too).

The Drowsy Chaperone. The best score Tony winner from a few seasons back is a slap-happy valentine to the giddy joy of bubble-gum Broadway musical, with a gay narrator recounting with catty enthusiasm his favorite old-time musical. Opens Dec. 2.

Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them. This new comedy by gay playwright Christopher Durang gets props for its title alone. Opens March 11 (in Theatre Too).

—  Arnold Wayne Jones