As referendum looms, gay plays open theater season

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During Jon Marans' "The Temperamentals," the season-opening play by Rep Stage about the gay rights movement, a woman raises the subject of marriage.

"I definitely do not believe in homosexuals marrying," she says.

She isn't talking about same-sex marriage, though, since the play is set in the severely closeted 1950s.

"Back then, people were arguing about whether gay men should marry women," Marans said. "There was no concept that something like same-sex marriage was on the horizon."

The fact that this disapproving character in the play appears in a dream sequence only underlines just how crazy that notion would have been at the time, when gay people typically got married to conform or camouflage, or perhaps in an attempt to suppress tendencies.

This is an interesting time to be reminded about such things, what with Maryland voters soon to decide whether a law allowing same-sex marriage will stand.

"It's not that Rep Stage is taking a side," said Michael Stebbins, the company's producing artistic director. "But I'm proud we're doing this play. It's a celebration of the human spirit. This show has been on my mind since I saw it when it was first done in 2009 off-Broadway, and I planned to do it here well before the referendum came up. But it is a fortuitous thing."

The playwright agrees.

"The timing of this production is great," he said. "This is agitprop theater, no doubt about that."

In addition to Rep Stage, gay themes are front and center this month as two other companies in the area open their seasons.

In two weeks, Single Carrot Theatre will offer Caryl Churchill's 2006 work, "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?" In this highly political piece, the dialogue about American foreign and domestic policies springs from a male couple.

A week later, Performance Workshop Theatre unveils "Breaking the Code," the 1986 play by Hugh Whitemore (later a BBC television production) that starred Derek Jacobi as Alan Turing, the gay British mathematical genius. Turing died, presumably a suicide, in 1954, two years after his arrest and conviction on a charge of sexual deviance.

Ordinarily, the only way around here to experience three plays in a row peopled with gay characters would be to catch the entire season of Baltimore's Iron Crow Theatre, which specializes in the work of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender artists. (Iron Crow's season opens next month with the premiere of Megan Gogerty's "Bad Panda.")

This month's unexpected confluence gives theatergoers an opportunity to consider gay lives and loves from various perspectives.

Kasi Campbell, who directed "The Temperamentals" for Rep Stage and several other gay-themed works for various companies, welcomes the proximity to November's marriage referendum.

"I'm sure some people wonder why a straight woman directs so many gay plays," Campbell said. "I'm very passionate about gay issues. I've seen too many of my friends hurt by prejudicial attitudes. And we are so far from where we need to be with gay rights."

Marc Horwitz, co-producing artistic director at Performance Workshop Theatre, likewise brings a clear political viewpoint to his company's season opener.

"The timing of 'Breaking the Code' was not accidental by any means," said Horowitz, who will star as Turing in the production. "We were very much aware and concerned about emerging patterns in this country affecting individual rights and the ability to live under equal freedom within the law, and how that's influenced by the government and legislation."

At Single Carrot, the marriage issue was not on anyone's mind when "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?" was first considered for staging by company members.

"The conversation was mainly about the politics in it, and the fact that it would be relevant because this is an election year," said Ben Hoover, who is directing the production. "There wasn't too much discussion about the fact that the play deals with two men. But it is not unusual for us to present LGBT stories on stage; they make up the complexities of life."

Churchill's play is steeped in Bush-era debates over terrorists, torture and foreign intervention. The two characters in the intense discussion are Sam (think Uncle Sam) and Guy, who leaves his wife and children to live with him.

Although Churchill doesn't mention gay rights in the script, the choice of two male characters adds a layer ripe with possible meaning.

"I'm trying to focus more on the relationship, rather than on the politics or Caryl Churchill's vision of America," Hoover said, "so that it's a play about two people, not just two symbols. I have the actors kiss very early into the play. We are very much making it a romantic relationship and looking at the blind love that a relationship can bring out in people. Guy blindly follows Sam, which isn't very logical or rational, given how Sam treats him."

In "Breaking the Code," a man's loyalty to his country is severely challenged when that country appears to turn on him. Turing cracked the Germans' Enigma code during World War II, a major contribution to the Allied victory, and he later laid the foundation for modern computers.

But when a relationship with a young, sexually ambivalent, working-class man put him on the wrong side of the law, the contributions Turing made to Britain's survival were forgotten. He suddenly became a security risk. After his conviction, he was sentenced to a hormonal treatment meant to neutralize his libido.

"To have given so much to his country and done it so enthusiastically, it was devastating for him to be treated like that," Horwitz said. "Turing was very committed to the truth, and he spoke most strongly to the idea that there is not one infallible rule, even in mathematics, you could define right and wrong by."

In the play, Turing says it is "shameful" for the state to interfere with private lives.

"He asks what the point is of a system that gives authority to people who don't deserve it," Horwitz said. "Right now in this country, we are seeing how personal rights are being redefined. It is a very dangerous time to be different. We're hoping that this play and the others we're doing this season will bring people to an understanding that it's OK to be different, and OK to disagree."

Coming to terms with being different, and accepting it proudly, is the primary message in "The Temperamentals," which focuses on Harry Hay and his friends who formed the first American gay rights organization, the Mattachine Society, in Los Angeles in 1950. "Temperamental" was one of the code words they used for "homosexual."

Today, the much-chronicled 1969 Stonewall riots in New York are widely considered the beginning of the modern gay rights movement, overshadowing Hay's much earlier risk-taking.

"Harry saw the world differently from everyone else, and he was joyously unapologetic about who he was," Marans said. "His attitude was: It's not my problem; it's your problem."

Marans built the play around Hay's relationship with fashion designer Rudi Gernreich (later best known for creating the topless bathing suit). It was a romance that helped Hay, married to a woman at the time, push open the closet door and charge fully into the Mattachine project.

"I was really surprised to find out I knew very little about all of that," said Rick Hammerly, who plays Mattachine pioneer Bob Hull in the Rep Stage production and is the only gay actor in the five-man cast.

"How could I be a part of this culture for so long and not know about these major people who helped move us toward gaining our rights? I feel I have educated myself a bit more through this play," Hammerly said. "And I hope it will help people understand how long this struggle has been going on, how important it is to make everyone equal."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"The Temperamentals": Runs through Sept. 16 at Rep Stage, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Call 443-518-1500, or go to repstage.org.

"Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?": Runs Sept.19 to Oct. 21 at Single Carrot Theatre, 120 W. North Ave. Call 443-844-9253, or go to singlecarrot.com.

"Breaking the Code": Runs Sept. 28 to Oct. 28 at Performance Workshop Theatre, 5426 Harford Road. Call 410-659-7830, or go to performanceworkshoptheatre.org.

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