Fresh Fruit Fest back for fall run
Think The Fresh Fruit Festival and you get a summertime vibe. This week, though, the summertime theater event is back for a brief fall run, from October 25 through November 6. Like its summertime counterpart, you’ll find a variety of the LGBT-themed theater, dance, poetry and music.
And as the air turns crisp and the days get shorter, this first-ever "Harvest Festival" will bring a slightly darker product to market.
EDGE spoke with the creative forces behind three upcoming productions-and found that while their approach is tart, the experience promised isn’t necessarily bitter.
"For the Benefit of Miss Jennie Gourlay" by Billy Hipkins
Premise: Jennie Gourlay was an actress about to get a shot at stardom at Ford’s Theatre. Then John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. So what became of Jennie-and why is Billy Hipkins taking her story so personally?
Backstory: "I was supposed to be very famous by now, and it just hasn’t happened," laments Hipkins. Currently occupying that comfy middle ground between disappointed but not yet dysfunctional, Hipkins identifies strongly with Jennie Gourlay-whose own potential starmaking moment was upstaged by the death of a president and the everlasting fame suddenly thrust upon his assassin.
"We all have this dream of what our lives should look like, this pinnacle experience that will take us there," observes Hipkins. "Not very many people get that. Dreams get shifted."
As her theater company’s leading lady, Jennie Gourlay was supposed to star in a benefit performance of "Our American Cousin" the night after the Lincolns paid their fateful visit. Only 20 years-old at the time, Hipkins notes, "She acted for 30 years after that. She did her best, but she never got famous. She was remembered only for having been right next to a tragedy."
In fact, she’s barely remembered at all. Tight-lipped until retired, Gourlay gave her first interview about the assassination while in her sixties. Hipkins, who acts out that interview in the show, says, "It’s really just the facts. She was just a woman who accepted this and did her best to carry on. I have been trying to find the document that tells me she was happy, but it doesn’t exist. So a lot of this piece is my belief. I believe she was gracious. I believe she was happy. I don’t even know if it was her dream to be a star, but it’s my dream for her."
One definite passion shared by subject and biographer: Hoop skirts! A friend tipped Hipkins off to the fact that a Historical Society Museum in Milford, PA has a few of the costumes from Gourlay’s glory days. Hipkins made his way there-only to find the costumes, "ruffled and stored in an attic, which upset me greatly."
But his road trip to Milford did produce some insightful flashbacks. A hated ritual throughout childhood, Hipkins admits that the long station wagon trips with his family to places like Williamsburg and Gettysburg foreshadowed his current obsession. "I used to refer to them as our ’historical journeys.’ There were six of us in one tent. What a great way to really experience the hardship of our forefathers."
Only one thing captured his imagination during those excursions: hoop skirts. Once home, he recalls, "I used to take those orange Hot Wheels tracks. You make three loops, then take some string from the junk drawer in the kitchen. Then you tie the strings to the loops and tie the string to a belt. Then you use a bed sheet to make a hoop skirt."
That artful and crafty little boy has now grown to be a man who hasn’t abandoned his love of hoop skirts-just as the disappointed Gourlay never abandoned her love of the theater. Hipkins says we should all take a page from the Jennie Gourlay story-which strikes, "a universal note of how we soldier on in our lives when things don’t happen the way that we dreamed they would."
"Three Ways" by Michael Bettencourt
Premise: This collection examines the love of men for men.
Backstory: "Each one is about the way men relate to men," says Bettencourt of three short plays brought together on the same bill for the first time. "If there’s a thread that runs through all of them, it’s that love is the most important thing. Many people get hung up on the form love takes; that somehow, it devalues that love. But the form is irrelevant."
Of "Body Electric" (based on a short story by another author), Bettencourt says, "I’ve always been an admirer of Whitman. In his autobiography "Specimen Days," he talks about going to Washington, D.C. to find his brother-who had been in one of the first Civil War battles."
Unable to locate him, Whitman instead encountered, "hundreds and hundreds of wounded men. So he decided to stay on. He provided solace and friendship. He wrote letters for people and ministered to their needs, even though he wasn’t medically trained." The play depicts a bond formed between Whitman and a man who refuses to have his leg amputated, even though that decision will prove fatal.
Bettencourt describes "Sporting Goods" as a memory piece recalling the erotic charge one gets from manly athletic pursuits. "I call it a monologue with wrestling moves," he says. "It’s told by a man thinking back to when he was a wrestler in high school, and how sports approved touching flesh."
The centerpiece of the collection is "Click." It concerns an older couple who’ve been with each other for years. One of them decides to kill a homophobe who’s insulted him. "He feels there will be one less hater in the world," notes Bettencourt. "But in doing so, he’s asking his partner to love both the sin and the sinner."
After seeing these similarly themed pieces, Bettencourt hopes audiences will rethink "not only this notion of love between men, but what it takes to make love stay."
"Day of the Dad" by Kevin Podgorsky
Premise: Six months ago, Howie’s mom died. Now, his widowed father (who recently fell off a ladder) is moving in. The sudden forced presence of dad-along with flak from nosy neighbor lady Doris and Howie’s increasingly distant lover Kenyan-marks the end of days for Howie’s peaceful Cleveland home life. But he’s determined to make the best of it.
Backstory: The good news is, events depicted in this play are not strictly autobiographical. The even better news: Playwright Kevin Podgorsky created the piece as a rebuttal to the pedestrian coming out stories that continue to plague gay theater.
"I wanted to tell a story where homosexuality is not the main source of conflict," says Podgorsky. Like the characters that populate all his works, the gay men in "Day of the Dad" are "comfortable in their sexuality. But there are other aspects of their life that they have problems with."
Conflict between Howie’s father and Howie’s lover, for example, is not even an issue. Instead, much of the tension arises from the fact that dad gets along better with the lover than his own son. The result, Podgorsky, says, is "jealousy and resentment...and that affects Howie’s relationship with his boyfriend. But even then, "He’s very accommodating, as long as it alleviates the appearance of a problem." Asked to what extent the drama onstage mirrors the drama in his life, the playwright notes, "I guess in my own personal life, I suppressed a lot of feelings...and they came out in other ways."
The lesson learned, in fiction as well as real life: "If you’re upset with somebody, deal with it rather than letting filling up the silence with your own meaning of what they meant. The whole play deals with finding those moments then discussing them... not jumping to conclusions.
Other Harvest picks
"Garbo" is Joe Gulla’s comedy/drama telling the story of a New Yorker enjoying an extended holiday in Rome. While going through the usual tourist motions, he stumbles upon the tiny, candle-lit Garbo Bar-and discovers why (even in the shadow of the Vatican) it’s better to live life outside of the closet.
In "Radclyffe: The Completely Honest and Mostly True Story of Victorian England’s Second Most Notorious Invert," Kestryl Cael Lowrey embarks upon a pseudo-historical exploration of the life of early 20th century butch Radclyffe Hall-as she smokes cigars, has affairs and writes the soon-to-be censored lesbian classic, "The Well of Loneliness."
Also the All Out Arts Youth Workshop, in conjunction with the Coalition of Queer Youth presents a collaborative work based on interviews of homeless young people living at Sylvia’s Place emergency shelter for LGBTQ youth.
Fresh Fruit’s "Harvest Festival" (Oct. 25 through Nov. 6) begins at the Workshop Theatre (312 West 36th St. 4th floor, btw. 8th & 9th Aves.) and moves to the Jan Hus Playhouse (351 E. 74th St., btw. 1st and 2nd Ave.) for the second week. Admissions range from free to $25 (TDF Vouchers accepted). For reservations and information, visit FreshFruitFestival.com.