In lieu of a full stage production for Mauckingbird Theatre Company’s late-summer program in their seventh season, Peter Reynolds, his partner, Brandon McShaffrey, and their third amigo, Lindsay Mauck, have decided to present A Mauckingbird Mix, for which they’re directing a couple legendary plays as staged readings—and, as an addition, livening things up with Miss Cast 5: College Edition. Why go this route? All of em’ are knee-deep in plans to get hitched: Reynolds to McShaffrey in November, and Mauck to her mate this very weekend.
“We realized that we’re not doing a full-blown production because we’re all getting married,” Reynolds tells PW. He and McShaffrey, the company’s producing director, met in Chicago, and both orbit around Temple, where Reynolds heads the theater department’s musical theater program. It’s how they met Mauck, the troupe’s namesake.
“Lindsay was a student of mine at Temple and just an incredibly savvy and hard-working, really sharp young person,” gushes Reynolds, Mauckingbird’s co-founder and artistic director. “And [she] has been a part of this since the beginning.” So seems the case with many Mauckingbird alumni—actors who’ve worked with he and McShaffrey over the years and, despite getting work in New York and elsewhere, still find a way to bring themselves back to Broad Street.
Jennie Eisenhower, for instance, performed the role of Hedda Gabler in the titular role back in 2009, a landmark production for the company. She reprises a less-dramatic one as hostess of Miss Cast 5, billed as a cabaret of “songs sung by the wrong people.” Broadway tunes, pop and rock tracks will be performed, but “men sing songs about other men and women sing songs about other women,” says Reynolds. It fits in nicely with their longstanding company goal, he adds. “We look at classic texts and stories through a queer lens.”
But the meat of A Mauckingbird Mix is in the landmark plays they’ve chosen to stage without grand sets or expensive costumes. It’s a cost-effective way to witness talented performers invoke the themes of these texts (and corresponding films) without much capital. That’s something else Mauckingbird’s always been devoted to: innovative, affordable, gay-themed theater.
Take The Children’s Hour, directed by Liz Carlson, Lillian Hellman’s 1934 melodrama that celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, which resulted in an Academy Award-nominated 1961 film version starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.
“It’s about two female schoolteachers ... and one of the young girls at the school, who’s a bit of a bad seed-troublemaker, tells her grandmother, who’s a huge benefactor to the school, that she saw the two women in a compromising situation,” says Reynolds. It was shocking: “one of the first places to even touch on this topic,” he adds. Its production was a big moment for queer playwrights again when it was committed to celluloid, but even then, nearly 30 years after The Children’s Hour was written, the queer element was still a taboo. According to Reynolds, MacLaine claims “they never even spoke of it during filming. They all knew what they were dealing with, but nobody spoke about it.” How ackward.
Almost 10 years after it hit big screens, so did William Friedkin’s rendering of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, a film said to be pretty close to the original off-Broadway production that made its debut in 1968 at Theatre Four in Hell’s Kitchen. Much of the play’s cast was in the movie, and all but a few have since passed, felled by AIDS-related maladies. It’s another “really important queer play,” says Reynolds.
McShaffrey, who’s directing the latter, hasn’t failed to notice the connections between the themes that are ripe in the original production, which captures what it’s like to be gay in New York City in 1968, and what it’s like in 2014 for a gay man. “It’s really fascinating to look at historically, especially right now, especially that gay marriage is gaining steam, and the world is such a different place from 1968,” McShaffrey tells PW, sharing his soon-to-be-husband’s observations. The Boys in the Band's characters struggle from “some of the same issues that gay men are still dealing with.”
Boys is centered around a birthday party for Harold—as coordinated by his frenemy, the party’s host, Michael—that goes from fun and games to emotional devastation in no time fast, aided and abetted by copious amounts of weed and booze. Michael’s a broken dick with a heart full of latent Catholicism and alcoholism, and even his friend, Donald, the adorable and underachieving homo who left the city to avoid the carcinogenic urban gay lifestyle, can barely put him back together as the play ends.
A wonderful cast of queer archetypes populates Boys, from femme to butch and free-spirited to grounded, and you’ll find friends who fit every categorization. Emory’s a brazen queen with a heart of gold. Larry’s a handsome fashion photographer who holds on to promiscuity as a political statement, perhaps to the detriment of a fulfilling relationship. Hank’s been married, and his wife’s given birth to two kids, but he risked it all to let his love for Larry have a chance. And that doesn’t even touch Alan, a beguiling Georgetown classmate of Michael’s, who says he’s straight, but who Michael accuses of being a closet queen. It all comes to a head when the host orchestrates a disastrously revealing game that involves calling the one you’ve loved most and telling them so—in a room full of drunk queens as spectators. It gets as ugly, as you might expect.
It’s in The Boys in the Band’s last scenes that a morsel of hope emerges, a suggestion for a better gay experience Crowley offered 46 years ago that may resonate with 2014 queers: “If we could just … learn not to hate ourselves so much. That’s it, you know. If we could just not hate ourselves quite so very, very much.” I hear that, Mary.
Fri., Aug. 29 through Sun., Sept. 7. Various times. $5-$10. Randall Theater at Temple University, 2020 N. 13th St. 215.923.8909. mauckingbird.org