BWW Review: Woven Theatre's Chilling and Suspenseful TALL TALES Opens at The Barbershop Theater
A.D. Timms' Original 'Queer Horror Play' Runs Through October 21
"What the hell did I just sit through?" was my visceral reaction upon leaving the opening night performance of A.D. Timms' Tall Tales - the original "queer horror story" presented by Woven Theatre Company at The Barbershop Theatre through October 20. Now, some 96 hours later as I sit down to compose my review of the piece, I find myself continuing to ponder that question.
Timms' play, directed by William Kyle Odum and starring a cast of young and focused actors to bring it to life, is confounding: At once it is a deeply personal introspection of growing up in a sternly religious and judgmental evangelical community in Alabama while it is also a larger-than-life, suspenseful seasonal tale (Halloween being just around the corner, as it were) of monsters, murders and mayhem. Perhaps inspired by Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story - at least it has the same feel of AHS - the plot is certain to keep audiences on the edge of their seats even if they, like me, have no idea what the fuck is happening onstage. Well, kinda...
Therein lies the rub of A.D. Timms' Tall Tales: if you have grown up GLBTQ in the rural South, chances are you'll recognize the terrain, both geographically and socio-politically, and your discomfort may come from the realization that the horrors you're witnessing onstage aren't so far-fetched after all. And that's why I've been scratching my head ever since leave The Barbershop, trying to ascertain what Timms intention is with this work; if it's to make people think (and isn't that what all good theater should do?), then it works splendidly. More than that, however, and I remain perplexed.
For myself, the set (a bar in that same Alabama town at the center of the Tales) reminded me of a trip in the mid-1980s to a gay bar in Tupelo, Mississippi - the kind of place where the denizens tended to not make eye contact, the drag show was "amateurish" at best, and where my entrance was greeted with suspicion and concern. Only after the bartender ascertained I was not a cop did people look up from their beers (next thing you know I was making out with some boy from Ole Miss, but I digress). The plot of Tall Tales, centering as it does on two heinous murders, is reminiscent of the murder of a young gay man in Nashville in the early 1990s which I covered for Query, Tennessee's Lesbian and Gay Newsweekly (the Volunteer State's first weekly newspaper for the GLBTQ community, which I co-owned and served as its editor in chief), in which the victim was stabbed multiple times and his lifeless body found floating in Percy Priest Lake. So entwined was I in the coverage of the crime that when America's Most Wanted did a grisly reenactment of the unsolved murder, not only did I appear as a talking head, but I was played by an actor, as well. Perhaps that explains my discomfort watching the story unfold before me: it hit too close for comfort.
In Timms' script, a young man named Noah (played with authenticity leavened with good humor by Jack Tanzi) returns to his hometown after a six-year absence during which he went to college, learned nothing much while there and leaves a broken relationship behind prior to moving back in with his parents. It's a story small-town queers have reenacted time and again over the years (the Southern literary landscape is fairly littered with such accounts, truth be told) and Noah's story clearly has the ring of truth to it, although I can't help but wonder why an intelligent young man would choose to leave his stifling hometown behind to go to a Christian college? Jesus Christ, indeed!
While Noah is away from home for six years (apparently he took the Jef Ellis route to a college education - another reason for my reluctance to write), he has essentially kept silent and completely cut off from his circle of close friends, with nary a phone call, text, email or birthday card to make up for his absence. That may be the most difficult plot point to accept: how the hell does someone do that and maintain he still loves and cares about his friends? Perhaps that's a minor quibble, but it still bothers me four days out from the big night.
But Noah's old pals don't hold that much of a grudge, it seems, because they all gather at Cynthia's bar (she's played with warmth and grit by Fiona Soul) to catch up and, apparently, to set in motion a series of events destined to end in tragedy. There's Jimmy, the gas station manager (Josh Inocalla gives yet another thoroughly believable performance), who's engaged and eager to make his own way out of town; Micah (Cody Hartman is terrific as the vaguely vacuous stoner who co-owns a coffeeshop in "the city," a larger burg some 30 miles from Hicksville), who's delivering pot to Cynthia; and Dustin, the scion of a small-town political family (his daddy's a Republican running for governor in Alabama, for God's sake) and the boy whose heart was broken by Noah back in the day - he's played with charm and intensity by Amos Glass.
There is a camaraderie among the quintet of actors that permeates the atmosphere of Cynthia's bar and, in turn, the venue itself that draws audiences in - kudos to director Odum for helping the ensemble to crystallize their moments with such honesty and bravery. The story, we suspect, rings true for some of the actors portraying the fictionalized characters in the script.
As the friends reconnect and their individual story arcs become apparent, there is some smart and snappy dialogue, more than a little humor and some revelations that are off-putting and disquieting, even if they seem somewhat far afield from the ingenuousness of Timms' play. As the ensuing murder mystery plays out, things tend to veer more toward the expected and some potentially intriguing points are disregarded. For example, Noah tells the audience (Tanzi is particularly effective in these moments during which he addresses the audience directly) about driving through the town and seeing "him" through the doors of the church - "him" being the town's leading pastor, we presume, who was instrumental in driving Noah from town right after high school graduation - and casting him as a more portentous character (who may, or may not, appear in later scenes), but we are unsure about his role in the mystery. What is obvious, however, is that the play would be more successful if that was made clearer.
What works most successfully in the production is its cleverly crafted sense of mystery, intrigue and suspense: You'll likely jump out of your seat, if not your skin, when the murderer appears (the hairs on the back of my neck are standing even as I remember that initial moment). There's a sophisticated sense of foreboding that fills the intimate confines of the Barbershop and the use of video monitors packs a wallop, both stylistically and thematically.
If you are looking for an original queer horror play, certain to send chills up your spine, you should see Tall Tales for sure - but keep in mind that The Barbershop is indeed intimate, so get your tickets quickly before it sells out.
Tall Tales. By A.D. Timms. Directed by William Kyle Odum. Presented by Woven Theatre Company at The Barbershop Theater, 4003 Indiana Avenue, Nashville. Through October 20. For more information, go to www.woventheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 10-minute intermission).