Village Orpheus at Fresh Fruit Festival
By Jon Jensen
Two one-act plays, Village Orpheus and Damn Fool, were featured together at this year’s Fresh Fruit Festival at the Wild Project on July 11 and 14. The program, entitled History of Love, explored gay and lesbian experience pre-Stonewall. Village Orpheus will perform a special encore performance on July 23.
Mickey Bolmer’s Village Orpheus is an ambitious project centered around the beloved poet, Frank O’Hara, who was a central figure in the New York artistic and literary scene in the 1950s and 60s. The cast of six actors played a variety of roles from O’Hara’s creative community, including photographer George Platte Lynes (Josh Jacobson), ballet dancer Vincent Warren (Mateo d’Amato), painter Jane Freilicher (Tamara Geisler) and Jackson Pollack’s widow Lee Krasner (Olivia Nice). The action of the play is framed by O’Hara’s relationship with Joe LeSuer played by Mario C. Brown, from their first encounter until the O’Hara’s untimely death on Fire Island.
Adam Wennick effortlessly captures O’Hara’s enigmatic modesty and nerdy magnetism, as seen in this film of O’Hara reading “Having a Coke with You.”
The play’s strongest moments come when Wennick reads O’Hara’s work, especially “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.”
Unfortunately, the play suffers in its attempt to marry O’Hara’s life to the legend of Orpheus in the Underworld. The first third of the production, directed by Daniel Roberts, begins with the actors lying corpse-like on the stage while images of the holocaust and bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are projected on the walls of the theater. In this opening section, the production attempts to set the play in its Cold War context, one that “required amnesia for all.” The video projection work by Lisa Renkel is adroitly done, but the effect is marred by the elevated dialogue and a campy delivery from Jacobson about the world in “ashes” and the “living dead.” The play improves after this awkward beginning, but never fully recovers.
Poetic Theater Productions presenter of Village Orpheus has the admirable mission of “reinvigorating a conscious theater of language,” but the play feels pretentious and overwrought by comparison to O’Hara’s poetry, which so gracefully elevated activities as mundane as eating a hamburger or buying a tabloid.
Orpheus was upstaged further by the opening, Damn Fool by W. Tré Davis. This compelling one-act play is set in the basement of a jail in the segregation-era South. Its action begins after the arrest of two women for dancing together at a local “juke joint.” Anna, played by Lisa Kitchens, is the white, unassuming “spinster” daughter of the local sheriff, overpoweringly drawn to Hattie (Renika Williams), an African American political activist.
As Hattie and Anna wait for the arrival of the sheriff, the two women confront the politics, race and sexuality as well as Anna’s uptight sister, Scarlett played by Lisa’s real-life sister Emily Kitchens. The script, directed by Richard C. Aven, is taut, masterfully written and performed. Renika Williams’ star-quality performance deserves special attention. Williams embodies the nuanced Hattie, a black woman whose intelligence, sensuality, courage and vulnerability make her irresistible to Anna, but imminently threatening to the White patriarchy she dares to confront. Williams inhabits this character so fully in the play’s brief span that, the audience, like Anna, can’t bear to be separated from her.
The Fresh Fruit Festival, now in its 15th year, continues with its innovative celebration of LGBT arts and culture through Sunday, July 23.
Jon Jensen is an educator, poet and visual artist. His writing has appeared in Out Magazine, Lambda Literary and St. Sebastian Review. Follow Jensen on Instagram @jonljensen.