Directed by Karla Kash
StageWest Theatre Co
Des Moines, IA




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Theater review: ‘Beebo Brinker’ deals in humor, heartbreak

Feb 21, 2011 | by Michael Morain |The Des Moines Register

The crowded train platform. The conductor’s “All aboard!” The sounds of the steam engine and swelling violins. The kiss and then . . . goodbye.

It’s a classic scene, even a cliché. But in “The Beebo Brinker Chronicles,” which StageWest presents through Sunday at the Civic Center’s Stoner Theater, the two lovers happen to be women.

That sounds simple enough today, but it was harder back when mainstream America was watching “I Love Lucy” and letting Joseph McCarthy bully his way to power in the U.S. Senate, as a note in the show’s program points out. Fewer women were allowed into the workforce, so it wasn’t uncommon for lesbians to wind up in sham marriages.
In the stylish, saucy and sometimes over-the-top story based on Ann Bannon’s pulp novels from the 1950s and ‘60s, the two women were sorority sisters — and a little more — who spend most of their post-college decade trying to get back together.

Such is the sad predicament of Beth (the excellent Elisabeth Ballstadt), who eventually leaves her confused husband (Dan Haymes) and two young kids in California to find her long-lost Laura (Amanda Mullen) in New York’s Greenwich Village, a few years before the Stonewall riots galvanized the modern LGBT movement. Laura meanwhile has transformed slowly (and smoothly, thanks to Mullen’s talents) from a sweet young closeted thing into a confident woman, with help from a wise and wisecracking gay friend (Todd Buchacker) and the swaggering title character (Amanda Julson, in a man’s suit and a black pompadour wig worthy of Kim Jong Il).

Although StageWest has produced a slew of stories about gay men over the years (“Take Me Out,” “Torch Song Trilogy,” “Angels in America”), its spotlights rarely shine on lesbians, partly because scripts are more rare. Lily Tomlin and her partner, Jane Wagner, produced this particular show off Broadway a few years ago and helped turn the original novels into a campy sort of hit. Here in Des Moines, for example, the actors occasionally step into red lights, drag on (herbal) cigarettes and narrate the action in the breathless melodramatic way we see these days only on the classic-movie channel. It’s all so . . . so sudden!

A jazzy soundtrack (assembled by Casey Gradischnig) and “Mad Men”-era costumes with lots of elaborate buckled lingerie (designed by Kelsey Hirth) amplify the show’s hard-edged effect.

But directors Karla Kash and Stacy Brothers don’t let the two hours coast on caricature. When the saxophones fade out, real emotions rise to the surface: Beth’s desperation as a closeted housewife, Laura’s confusion in the city’s secret subculture, Beebo’s lonely courage, and pretty much everybody’s fear of growing old alone.

When Laura asks someone how you know you’re gay, the response is flip at first: “You go to a fortune teller.”

And then more honest: “Or you do it the old-fashioned way and you get hurt.”

Exploring the dark recesses of our historical closets

By John Busbee

Stepping into a 1950s film noir train station scene where two lovers part, The Beebo Brinker Chronicles begins our journey through a microcosmic glimpse anchored by the Greenwich Village lesbian and gay world in a much different time. The show is filled with spotlit asides, sultry deliveries evoking that cinematic style of the story. This stage adaptation by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman, from books by the iconic Ann Bannon, is most assuredly not a look through rose-colored glasses – unless the spectrums are in shades of rage, boldness and blood. With heavy doses of take-your-breath-away viciousness and dark humor, The Beebo Brinker Chronicles adds a new element to StageWest Theatre Company’s legacy of bringing new performing arts experiences to Greater Des Moines audiences.

For those familiar with the source material, this show undoubtedly brings Bannon’s groundbreaking pulp fiction series of five books, The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, to a special life on stage. This production resonates with a stylized, sexual surrealism, bordering on the melodramatic. Co-directors Stacy Brothers (who also plays two cameo roles, Lili and Nina, in the show) and Karla Kash bring a wealth of experience to tackle this challenging show, and have assembled a gifted cast.

Set in the homosexually repressive 1950s era of pre-Stonewall Greenwich Village, The Beebo Brinker Chronicles tells the story of Beth (Elisabeth Ballstadt) and Laura (Amanda Mullen), secret lovers in college. This story follows their tempestuous lives, before a New York reunion is threatened by the plots of Beebo Brinker (Amana Julson), a butch kingpin of the underground bar scene.

The directors’ choices seem to miss a more sympathetic alignment with the underlying lessons to be learned, and insights to be gained. Even though powerfully delivered, the stylization and brutality seem to hold viewers at bay, rather than draw them in. More understatement, à la the parallel period success of the television show, “Madmen,” to counter the necessary passionate extremes, could have helped take this good production to even higher levels.

That being said, The Beebo Brinker Chronicles is a production all Central Iowa theatre patrons should see, as it showcases the best in community theatre while remaining true to the producing company’s position of bringing eclectic, urban theatre on the edge. Casey L. Gradischnig truly flexes his creative muscles, not only designing a gritty, appealing set in the challenging Stoner Theatre space, but also layering this production with an exquisitely evocative music design, partnering with sound tech and effects designer, Joshua F. Jepson. Coupled with Jim Trenberth’s lighting design, moods and tone visually shift with the action. Costume Designer Kelsey Hirth mostly stays true to the era, supported by Hair/Makeup Design by Cindy Hummel.

As Beth, Ballstadt radiates an almost feral anxiety, trying to shed her family-role trap from her passion for Laura, with Mullen giving this role a constantly bipolar innocence and coolly calculated predator. These two are at their instinctive best when they revel in each other’s lustful sexuality. As Charlie, Beth’s husband, Dan Haymes cloaks himself in frustration and incomprehension. Once in New York, roommate Marcie (given playful superficiality by the talented Makha Mthembu) becomes an irresistible love interest to Laura. Ben Gran turns in a brilliant cameo role as the bartender, Burr, beaten by years of libation-laced servitude. Brothers gives her best as Lili and Nina Spicer, filled with her lush voice and facial animation. In one of the best lines in the show, Brothers, as lesbian pump novelist Spicer, replies to Beth’s question about how do you know if you’re gay with, “You go to a fortune teller” (beat) “Or, you do it the old-fashioned way and get hurt.” Searing truth at its candid best.

Two standout performances were turned in by Julson and Todd Buchacker. Julson’s charismatic stage presence seems to channel specters of Cary Grant as her Beebo Brinker commands her territory with all the confidence and swagger of the king of the pride. She pounces with the power of a lion on a gazelle. Buchacker immerses himself into the warm, irresistible role of Jack, complete with lascivious foibles, yet noble actions. He achieves the level of fatalistic charm that Robert Preston did in “Victor, Victoria.” Both play their roles with inner and outer honesty that’s a pleasure to witness, bringing special poignancy sprinkled throughout the story.

The Beebo Brinker Chronicles is filled with wit, complexities and savageness. It deserves the attention of those who appreciate good, locally-produced theatre. StageWest has another memorable gem on its hands.

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