BWW Reviews: Theatre Out Denver and the Denver Element Presents SOUTHERN BAPTIST SISSIES - a Touching Gay Romp
The born again gay theater company, Theatre Out Denver (fka: Theatre on Broadway), remounts one of its favorites with the tragicomedy SOUTHERN BAPTIST SISSIES, benefiting the Denver Element now through March 24th. This exuberant show by playwright Del Shores (Sordid Lives; Daddy’s Dyin’: Who’s Got the Will?) is the coming of age journey of four gay boys who attend the fire and brimstone Calvary Baptist Church. The play’s roots of inspiration are buried deep into the bedrock of hatred that was the Matthew Shepard murder. As is typical of Del Shores plays, SBS deals with real social and emotional issues, but does so in a way that makes us laugh at ourselves while nudging us to question our own prejudices in thinking and behavior.
When we entered the theater, we were greeted by the sounds of soulful southern gospel music and a stunning staiNed Glass display that immediately set the tone, time, and place: conservative Christian south Texas. Hallelujah! This show had us laughing from the first line and is as interactive and lively as a 3-day tent revival in a hailstorm … but with drag queens. (Thank you, Benny). Shores’ story both interrogates existing systems of reductionist stereotyping and questions the “gay” experience on a deeply personal and individual level. Set against a background (quite literally) of fundamental religious hyperbole, issues of homosexuality, coming out, puberty, sex, denial, family, identity, suicide and ultimately finding acceptance in this world play out. While this show stays mostly in the church, in contrast the two resident barflies, Peanut and Odette Annette Barnet, are LOL funny and yet have an endearing sadness to them. At times this show felt like an episode of Queer as Folk (for which Shores was a writer), but the stellar acting is something to behold. The only two issues I had were (1) hold for laughs, and (2) the transition from puberty/childhood to young adult/manhood was murky and confusing (Brock Benson was the only one to clearly portray this shift and should be commended). This production keeps the social commentary and players current, which I applaud. The superbly written monologues give each actor a chance to shine and each one meets that challenge with genuine passion. While Act I had
us laughing from the beginning, Act II had us crying until the end. The wedding scene at the end of the play is an offering of hope and renewal, which only caused the tears to flow more freely.
Original cast member James O'Hagan-Murphy as main narrator Mark Lee Fuller excels in his role. He is relatable and instrumental in guiding the shifting plot. Mark’s interactions with the congregation’s scripture-spewing pastor (Todd Black in an inspired performance) stirred the audience in more ways than one. Brock Benson as Mark’s love interest TJ Brooks delves deeply into his character’s fears and insecurities, playing them with profound subtlety. The confrontational reunion between the two is one of the most emotionally compelling things I’ve ever seen on a stage. Stefin Woolever as Andrew Thomas Ford is superb, capturing the essence of tormented gay youth. Preston Lee Britton
as fabulous drag queen Benny was a huge audience hit. Linda Suttle as Mother and Black as Preacher have more subtle roles, but show strength in their presentations. Everyone's favorite scene-stealers – ancient barfly Peanut (David Ballew) and Odette Annette (Samara Bridwell) add delightful commentary with an emotional punch at the end, with Odette’s deeply moving monologue and Peanut’s lingering last lines.
This outstanding show is a benefit for The Denver Element (a Gay Men's Wellness Initiative), which promotes a journey of mental, physical, and social well-being for all gay men. They achieve this by promoting opportunities for community building, personal growth, HIV education, substance use prevention, and the celebration of life. Programs include Touch Team Element (promoting community in our community), Boyfriend University (a discussion group for gay men of all
walks and relationships) and the Mile High Meth Project (a compassionate treatment plan for gay men coping with meth and other substances).
Now for you fundraising folks, here's what worked and what didn't. Worked: having a Drag Queen Church Social Potluck theme featuring divas of the Denver Cycle Sluts on opening night was a flat-out stroke of genius and whoever came up with the idea deserves a raise. This was such a fun and tasty time that I wish it had gone a step further. Think about having a bakery, cupcake guru, or dessert shop sponsor this worthy cause and have a drag queen and baked goods there every night. This would be a delicious way to draw audiences and funds. Didn't work: passing around an offering plate. While it may have been appropriate to the theme of the show, it was a little tacky. Mentioning and having donation boxes available is a much more tasteful way to do this and more respectful to the talented cast and crew who are giving their all onstage.
The set by designer CJ Hosier is simple and efficient (and reminded me a little of the Church Lady's office from SNL) utilizing every speck of the stage. Whether the scene is set at someone’s home or at a club, the iconic and beautiful staiNed Glass (by artist Karma Leigh) remains as an ever-present reminder of the hell and damnation messages the boys received from the pulpit all their childhood. There were a couple of glitches with the sounds levels, which drowned out the actors’ lines several times. Also, the lighting had a few issues that are easily fixed. When Mark and TJ are in the
throes of their love scene (in front of that iconic staiNed Glass), the lighting was dark and it was hard to follow what was happening. Modesty during any sex scene is one thing, but at least bring up the lights for the remainder of this intense exchange, a critical encounter that alters the course of the men’s lives.
This show, capably directed by Steven Tangedal, is a heartfelt, funny, and devastating insight into the stigmas and social complications that come with living life and love to one’s fullest potential in truth and integrity – especially when that truth and integrity is perceived by many as a damnable sin. SOUTHERN BAPTIST SISSIES is set against a timely backdrop of hyper-conservative religiosity that is currently hell bent on setting human rights back 150 years. This play should be seen by every human in Colorado, regardless of religious ideology or sexual orientation. I can’t wait to see what Theatre Out Denver does next! I encourage everyone to support the community (and this wonderful cause) and see SOUTHERN BAPTIST SISSIES, noodling brains and making audiences think at the Crossroads Theatre through March 24th. For tickets or information, contact the Denver Element at 720-382-5900 or check online at www.thedenverelement.com.