BWW Reviews: THE BEEBO BRINKER CHORNICLES - Fun, Humorous, and Thought-Provoking Pulp Inspired Play
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by David Clarke
Ann Bannon, a puesdonym for Ann Weldy, wrote six lesbian themed pulp novels from 1957 to 1962. These novels are collectively known as The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, and have experienced several renaissances of rediscovery. The most recent was when Cleis Press rereleased the series from 2001 to 2003 with newly penned autobiographical forwards. The Hourglass Group presented the World Premiere of Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman's play adaptation of the series in 2007. The writers used material from the second, third, and fourth novels (I Am a Woman, Women in The Shadows, and Journey to a Woman) to construct their narrative. THE BEEBO BRINKER CHONICLES found success both Off-Off-Broadway and Off-Broadway, and was awarded the GLAAD Media Award for "fair, accurate, and inclusive" character portrayals of gay and lesbian people.
Set mostly in Manhattan's Greenwich Village from 1952 to 1961, THE BEEBO BRINKER CHRONICLES, having its Houston Premiere presented by Celebration Theatre, tells the story of the search for sexual identity. The script avoids camp and decidedly doesn't sugarcoat any aspect of the rough journey from the repression of one's sexual identity to the full realization and embracing of one's self. Of course, this journey is thoroughly complicated and immensely conflicted because the female leads are not only discovering themselves sexually in the 50s and early 60s, but they are also lesbians and dealing with a society that tells them what they feel is wrong. Thus, THE BEEBO BRINKER CHORNICLES teeters between being a romantic comedy and fantasy and a play that is taught with heavy hitting themes of finding and embracing one's identity while comfortably bending or altogether defying gender role conformity. These characters are far from being happy and cheery, and the audience gets to see every ounce of their self-loathing and pain on their roads to discovery.
Randall Jobe's direction ensures that the characters on stage read as believable and not campy caricatures of Lesbian archetypes and 1950s personas. While some of the more physical scenes seem to be played more for laughs and have tinges of camp, this does not detract from the production and provides a sensible and light-hearted touch that ultimately allows the audience a chance to take a brief break from the weighty thematic elements. Likewise, in true pulp style, the plot errs on the melodramatic and is reminiscent of a soap opera. Despite being set in the 1950s and 1960s, the show feels incredibly progressive and modern. Randall Jobe captures and adequately develops each theme, making this production of lesbian pulp fiction more captivating, intriguing, and intellectually stimulating than The L Word.
Darin Montemayor's Beth is impressively realized and played. At first, Beth rejects Laura-her lover from college-and sends her to New York all alone. It is not because Beth doesn't love Laura, it is because her own idea of femininity excludes her lesbian feelings. Beth, following her narrow and rigidly defined ideal of woman, chooses a husband and children over love. She enslaves herself to fitting a societal norm and loathes her children, her husband, and herself. Darin Montemayor conveys this emotional conflict with deft poignancy, allowing the audience a glimpse into a struggle that still exists in present times. In the second act of the show, Beth's arc frees Beth from her self-imposed repression and she journey's to Manhattan to find Laura, which allows Darin Montemayor to expertly showcase the tumultuous and sometimes dangerous journey to self-discovery as well.
Laura, as played by Margaret Lewis, gets a jump-start on her quest for identity. In New York, she longs for a woman to fill the void that her idealized love of Beth has left in her heart. From the beginning of the production, the audience watches as she struggles with the burden of forbidden loves. Having been hurt by Beth's rejection, she is advised to stay away from the games that heterosexual women may play with her. Refusing to take the advice, she gets lost in an unfulfilling and frustrating flirtation with Marcie. In the aftermath of Marcie, Margaret Lewis makes Laura's hurt palpable and wholly affecting. Leaving girls behind, she falls for the masculine Beebo. Their torrid romance is fleeting because Beebo can't fill Beth's void and leaves Laura cold. Margaret Lewis expertly takes the audience on this intense and discordant rollercoaster ride of loss and discovery, showcasing and making believable the "coming-of-age" elements of the plot.
Elizabeth Marshall Black, portraying the titular character Beebo, is swarthy, masculine, sensual, and surprisingly compassionate. While Laura and Beth are the focal points of the show, Beebo serves as a both mentor and guide for each of these women. She is tender as an educator and fiercely passionate in her love for Laura. Despite being Laura's first real lesbian romance, she is forever caught in the shadow of Laura's first love. Add in Laura's cheating and Beebo's jealousy, and there is just no way that the women could work as a couple. Elizabeth Marshall Black's Beebo is layered in richness and complexity, especially in her emotionally raw and powerful performance scenes where the audience witnesses the toll Laura's infidelity takes on her.
Autumn Clack is delightfully wicked as both Marcie and Lili. She plays both dubious characters in ways that guarantees the audience loves to hate her.
Jennfier Doctorovich plays the narrator and Nina. Both portrayals are simply fun and interesting. She easily earns laughs during Laura and Beebo's first night together and when, as Nina, she sardonically hits on Beth.
Steve Bullitt plays Jack, the gay best friend, adroitly. He is sincere and loyal, doing everything he can to help Laura along her road to self-discovery and realization.
Blake Alexander's Charlie doesn't get much time on stage, but he captivates in his confrontation scenes with Beth. He exudes palpable grief and heartbreak, trying to understand the situation he is in.
As Burr, Taylor Biltoft, is a misogynist that attempts to cover his dislike for women with humor. Only having one scene in the beginning of the play, he helps set the stage for the exploration of powerful social commentary in the show, explaining that a good man could fix the lesbians with one lay.
Craig Allen's set design is sparse and versatile, allowing the scene to be easily set and reset to showcase the different apartments and New York locales the characters inhabit. An inspired part of the design is the painting on the floor that serves as both a boundary for the performance space and a New York sidewalk. It's a simple touch that is used cleverly.
Justin Campbell's light design is fantastic. It utilizes bold and vibrant washes of reds and blues to mimic the shading in style of art that graces pulp fiction covers. Lighting is not always perfectly realistic, which also works well with the piece.
Costume design by Reba Kochersperger, with assistance from Barbara Terry, is phenomenal. The costumes purposefully and perfectly capture the fashion of the era and look great on every member of the cast. There is no telling how long and hard the search for each piece was or how many were handmade or hand-tailored for the production, but the work pays off beautifully.
Wigs are done by Chris Martin. Hair design overall, including wigs, is great. The only piece I have a problem with is the blonde wig worn by Autumn Clack when she plays Marcie. It just doesn't look good on Autumn Clack and stands out as a wig. While an eyesore, it doesn't detract from the performance.
A few minor weaknesses did exist in the performance I saw, which was their final preview. Set change choreography was not always sharp and times between scenes were sometimes a bit long. With that said, I'm sure their choreography will tighten up. Also, a couple of lines were flubbed, but I feel that will be remedied before the show officially opens tonight (November 9).
Knowing that THE BEEBO BRINKER CHRONICLES was pulled from pulp fiction, I was not sure what to expect when I entered the theatre to watch the show. Undoubtedly, I was pleasantly surprised with how humorous and thought-provoking the show was. If all of the social issues presented in the show last night are in the source material, Ann Bannon was undeniably ahead of her times in writing the novels. Everything in the show seems fresh and relevant. None of these social problems have been truly overcome, making the show an empowering experience for women, the GLBT community, and GLBT allies. The show is completely enjoyable and fascinating.
The Houston Premiere of THE BEEBO BRINKER CHRONICLES runs at Obsidian Art Space until December 1, 2012. For tickets and more information please visit http://www.celebrationtheatrehouston.com/ or call (832) 303 – 4758.
All photos by Dalton DeHart, courtesy of Celebration Theatre.