BWW Review: Halleloo! A musical celebration of 13 FRUITCAKES at La Mama
La Mama Experimental Theatre Club has programmed a month-long series called the Stonewall 50 celebration. Coinciding with this month's World Pride event, 13 Fruitcakes arrives with a few instructive sentences about New York in 1964 when the World's Fair was opening. The mayor orders the city's social pariahs off the streets including the homeless, druggies, prostitutes and homosexuals. That's a far cry from rainbow windows at Nordstrom's in midtown today. Halleloo!
From this ominous opening, video projections wind backward through time until 6th Century BCE. The first of the vignettes is the story of Harmodius and Aristogeiton. These two male lovers became known as the Tyrannicides, the preeminent symbol of democracy to ancient Athenians. (Wouldn't it be fun if Tyrannicides was the word origin for "tranny"?) These men assassinated the authoritarian tyrant. With minimal storytelling (projected sentences), each scene incorporates a sung poem from a gay author set to an original score. For this first vignette, they used Walt Whitman's We Two Boys Clinging Together.
The story of Dong Xian in the 1st Century BCE follows. He was a Han Dynasty politician who quickly gained fame and power, rising to be the most powerful official in Emperor Ai's administration. Both were married but the two men had a sexual relationship. King Hyegong of Korea's Silla kingdom in the 8th Century was murdered because he was effeminate. Historians describe him as a man by appearance but a woman by nature.
Byungkoo Ahn wrote and directed this production featuring the Singing Actors Repertory from South Korea. The beautiful and intricate song cycle was composed by Gihieh Lee. The poem's words were always projected to allow their meaning to be clear whether or not sung in English. The style was frequently operatic and deeply emotional. The singing by the accomplished cast was excellent as was the choreographed movement and silent acting.
The show travels through history presenting artistic vignettes of major "fruitcakes" from history. Serious, somber and occasionally playful and silly, the show incorporates music, dance, costumes and drama with a major Korean drag artist as a Mistress of Ceremonies named Orlando. More Zimin lip synchs her songs which are performed live by the gloriously big voiced Jayoung Jeong. Along the way, the show covers Leonardo da Vinci, Tchaikovski and Eleanor Roosevelt seen in many, many photos kissing women.
One particular story is told with simplistic and heartbreaking poignancy. Alice B. Toklas lived with Gertrude Stein for 38 years. Ms. Stein was an avid art collector of works by her friends and had assembled a treasure trove of paintings. When she died, Ms. Toklas had no legal standing as the women were not married. She died in penury. The projection first showed an empty room, then chairs, then the women and finally the whole room was filled in with paintings adorning the walls. A visual representation of an unfair society powerfully told through a single photograph.
The sad, horrifically unjust tale of Alan Turing is another slice of fruitcake. It remains unfathomable that the man who was pivotal in decoding Nazi communications for the Allies and saving millions of lives would be sentenced to chemical castration for his homosexuality. Twenty years later British sex farces with transvestites would be considered great fun in the West End.
Using a little comedy to lighten up the proceedings was welcome in the section about Hans Christian Andersen. His love letters to Edvard Collin survive but Mr. Collin married and was not gay. Scholars believe Andersen's The Little Mermaid, written at the same time as the communication between these two men, is reflective of his personal story of loss. Oscar Wilde's Wasted Days provides the poem to accompany this piece. A wedding ceremony is staged where three groomsmen hilariously horse around. This is partially a drag show after all.
Much of the pacing in 13 Fruitcakes is very slow with transitions that could be shortened. All of this blooming artistry is accompanied by Los Angeles Laptop Collective who, dressed as nerdish angels, add layers of electronica noises throughout the show. It's jarring and different than anything on the stage. The effect seemed to be a different generation looking back in time from the perspective of today. That remains important and added an interesting element.
Dripping with style and grace (and, of course, a fabulous headdress), More Zimin ends the show with a climatic peak. The whole cast is singing and she saunters offstage returning with chains carried overhead only to throw them to the ground. The cast sings "we must go through yet we do not know who called or what marks we shall leave upon the snow."
There is only one weekend to see this experimental work of art in the midst of a historical pride weekend from an overseas company who brought their singular vision. Patient theatergoers will be rewarded with a celebration of some of the best fruitcakes ever tasted.