Sunday, March 11, 2012

About a boy

Ian Shain and Felix Teich finally make it to the prom. Photos: Saglio Photography.

I got to Boston Children Theater's Reflections of a Rock Lobster a little late - and the run was short (this afternoon is the last performance), so for most readers, this will be a post-mortem.  Which doesn't really matter; the production got tons of positive press, and to be honest, it's the kind of politically-driven production I often take issue with.

That kind of position is complicated for me this time around, however, because this piece is open, self-declared agitprop, and of a particularly benign variety - it takes on prejudice against gays in general, and the bullying of gay kids in particular.  Perhaps I'm being a bit hypocritical in my affection for it, of course, because I'm gay - and Rock Lobster, the true story of Rhode Island teen Aaron Fricke's legal fight to take his boyfriend to the prom, takes place in 1980, right around the time of my own coming out (although I wasn't as brave as Aaron - I waited till college).  So the period detail here - from the midnight pilgrimages to The Rocky Horror Picture Show to the Jordan Marsh shopping bags - was particularly resonant for me, and Boston Children's Theatre has taken the time (and spent the money!) to get everything from the post-70's tuxes to the pre-80's hair just about exactly right.

To be honest, however, author Burgess Clark, who developed the script from Fricke's memoir, does occasionally play too heavy a political hand for my taste.  Indeed, at a talkback following the performance I saw, Mr. Fricke himself (who was in attendance) had to field a pointed question or two from teachers at his high school at the time, who challenged a few of the script's broader strokes.  In Reflections of a Rock Lobster, handsome boyfriends are always articulately brave, while conservative principals are obviously vile; this makes for good theatre, of course - but if only life itself fell into such appealing, clean categories!  Oh, well. Fricke likewise had to admit that his relationship with his parents wasn't quite as the playwright portrayed it; things were inevitably more complicated at home, and "artistic license was taken," he confessed.

Yep, been there, done that: Ian Shain endures a rite of gay passage in Reflections of a Rock Lobster.

Still, Fricke's brave story is a compelling one, and Clark cleaves to its general outline; and to the playwright's credit, he does know how his way around a melodrama.  Clark may never pull his punches, but still, he can land a (far-) left hook, and in a story like this one, you appreciate that.   Plus he's brave enough to deal directly with topics like the furtive sexual fumblings of teen-aged boys, as well as hate speech like "faggot" and "cock sucker."  (Rock Lobster may not be appropriate for kids in middle school or younger - although actually, kids at that age know all these words, and more.)

The playwright also directed, and he has been lucky in his cast, from whom he has generally drawn strong performances: teen-agers Ian Shain and Felix Teich were both utterly believable (and utterly un-self-conscious) in the lead roles of Aaron and his boyfriend Paul, and were backed up by subtle work from local theatre stalwarts Paula Plum and Richard Snee as Aaron's clueless parents ("You have such a strange sense of humor for a boy!" they tell him).  There was more nice supporting work from Sophia Pekowsky as Aaron's accident-prone best friend,  Allan Mayo as a flamingly old-fashioned gay activist, and Doug Bowen-Flynn, who tried to work as much subtlety as he could into the evil-principal role.

There was also the sense throughout the performance that broad as it sometimes may have been, this was still agitprop on the front lines.  Indeed, perhaps because of the very visibility of gay people (and even gay teens), bullying only seems to be getting worse these days. Projections on the set detailed a list of those who have died because of gay-bashing in recent years, and in the middle of the talkback the crowd was momentarily stilled by a quiet question from the balcony:

"Aaron- how did you endure all that bullying?" a young girl wanted to know.  "Because, you know, I'm like trying to deal with - well - I mean, could you just tell me how you got through it?  Please?"

You could hear everyone in the theatre take a big gulp (luckily there were folks from PFLAG on hand to offer support and guidance).  And I remembered that for some kids, shows like Reflections of a Rock Lobster are nothing less than a lifeline.

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