Original musical numbers:”Bring Me Your Tired,””Little One,””Adolescent’s Song,””City of Ships I & II,””Vigil Strange,””Prayer,””Anthem.”
When it comes to the Stonewall riots, separating fact from fiction isn’t easy. The event credited with kicking off the modern gay rights movement 25 years ago has developed its own mythology, and accounts even by those who were there differ in detail. How, then, to tell the tale in theatrical terms? Writer and director Tina Landau, fast becoming one of Off Broadway’s most distinct voices, provides the answer by embracing both myth and reality in “Stonewall, Night Variations,” an impressionistic and wonderfully entertaining account of that pivotal summer night in Greenwich Village.
“Stonewall” marks Landau’s re-teaming with En Garde Arts following last summer’s acclaimed production of “Orestes.” En Garde, devoted to “site-specific” theater performed in various locales throughout the city, seems the ideal partner for this project:”Stonewall” is performed outdoors on a Hudson River pier, the better to suggest a similar June evening in 1969.
The collaboration is all the more appropriate given Landau’s idiosyncratic blend of traditional narrative, performance art, dance and song. Accessible without compromising her avant garde leanings, Landau leavens with humor what in lesser hands would certainly come off as pretentious.
She begins her theatrical kaleidoscopeby having the audience walk through a carnival setting en route to the stage proper. But this carnival, an edge-of-the-city metaphor, features the characters of the play as sideshow attractions: A closeted middle-aged exec listens to a Judy Garland record, grieving over the recently dead star; a butch lesbian in gym attire pummels a heavy-bag while recalling a tortured childhood. These and other vignettes introduce the characters whose paths will cross at Stonewall.
Once the actual play begins, more than 50 performers take over, from ghost-like angels at the far end of the pier to dancing cops, Andy Warhol and his entourage of superstars, drag queens, male hustlers, female hookers, butch lesbians and the ethereal host of the evening — a Pierrot-like apparition part carnival barker, part Glinda the Good Witch.
In James Schuette’s imagistic set, the Stonewall Inn itself is about a quarter of the way down the pier, represented by a bar and some scattered stools. Most of the action takes place in the “street” between the bar and the audience bleachers and focuses on a handful of main characters. They are apparently inspired by actual persons and are played by a uniformly good cast.
Among others, there’s Francis Sinclair (Michael Malone), the transvestite “whore with an attitude” carrying on a tentative flirtation with a sympathetic beat cop (Stephen Speights); Howie Raskin (Barney O’Hanlon), the Midwest kid just arrived in the big city who meets a Vietnam vet (Steven Skybell) just discharged for being gay; Eliot Shomberg (Bruce Katzman), the closeted milquetoast whose self-torture is exceeded only by the cruel “treatments” of the psychiatric establishment; and Angelina “Chuck” Romano (Sharon Scruggs), a tough lesbian given both to men’s suits and the pretty, sexually curious Warhol hanger-on Geneva (Camilia Sanes).
Their stories mix, mingle and simmer in the hour leading up to the riot, and while the performance space is always abuzz with movement, attention at any given moment is drawn via spotlight to one of the storylines. [ Neither Landau nor her “Stonewall” are particularly concerned with journalistic re-creations, preferring instead to present the spirit of rage and pride that exploded in the riots and the process by which a ragtag bunch of outsiders formed a community. Even the communal myths are given their due: Judy Garland’s casket is spirited away by angelic pallbearers, her ghost returning later to re-create the legendary “Happy Days”/”Get Happy” duet with Barbra Streisand. ]
While “Stonewall” could benefit from some editing — musician and riot eyewitness Dave Von Ronk (Ford Evanson) and his hippie friends, among two or three others, could be excised without harming the script — the production’s strength is in its diversity of character. Landau’s style supports her premise that an historical event like Stonewall is a conglomeration of little happenings , the melding of disparate individuals whose anger and actions briefly coincide. “The legacy,” says the carnival barker, “is in the moment.”
Depending on one’s level of interest in the eruption itself, Landau’s stylized staging of the riot could be somewhat anti-climactic. Her interest, clearly, is in the boiling cauldron of oppression that leads to the violence. In “Stonewall,” the riot itself is presented fairly quickly toward the end of the play, then repeated several times as the participation of each main character is spotlighted in succession. Even if it’s a bit drawn-out, the approach is tidy in resolving the overall Stonewall story and the individual storylines of its participants.
Near the end of the play, a rioting lesbian steps forward to warn that society’s tolerance “is like the river tide: It rises to a high watermark and can recede again.” Unabashed in her political entreaties, Landau soon has the entire cast naming names of people purported to be gay, lesbian or bisexual. From Plato to Dinah Shore, it’s a lengthy list, a ploy that threatens heavy-handedness but becomes instead celebratory, jubilant. That approach infuses the entire production and it, above all else, might be Tina Landau’s sweetest gift to the memory of Stonewall.