Theatrical Freaks and Geeks

Characters who operate beyond the norms of society create amusing and thought-provoking tales on local stages.

Sep 13, 2016 at 9:54 am
Bruce Cromer (Tracy) and Michael Gerard Carr (Casey) in "The Legend of Georgia McBride" - Photo: Ryan Kurtz
Photo: Ryan Kurtz
Bruce Cromer (Tracy) and Michael Gerard Carr (Casey) in "The Legend of Georgia McBride"

Call them what you will — misfits, oddballs, even freaks and geeks — but characters who operate beyond the norms of everyday society make for compelling stories. Amusing or thought provoking, such tales are opportunities to explore alternative visions of how life could (and perhaps should) be lived. Two examples, both of which are Critic’s Picks, are the season-opening productions at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.

The Legend of Georgia McBride by Matthew Lopez is an amusingly presented parable about being open-minded, told with humor and highly entertaining performances, as staged by Ensemble’s Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers. Casey (Michael Gerard Carr) loses his job as an Elvis impersonator at a seedy Florida Panhandle bar; he’s replaced by a pair of drag queens, Tracy (Bruce Cromer) and Rexy (Darnell Pierre Benjamin). When Rexy’s excesses necessitate a sudden onstage replacement, Casey — straight as can be and desperate to make ends meet (there’s a baby on the way) — is a recalcitrant and hopelessly incompetent recruit. His awkward performance as tragic chanteuse Edith Piaf, lip-syncing French lyrics, is hilarious.

But something in him clicks and it turns out Casey has an aptitude for this avenue of performing, especially once he adds a whiff of Elvis to his act. Suddenly he and Tracy are packing the house, and we’re treated to a cavalcade of seasonal shows with astonishing costume changes as audiences (in Florida and at ETC) warm to a series of bizarre but sweet performances. Advised by “dragologist” Ray “Raven” Payne, drag acts by Carr, Benjamin and Cromer are delightfully authentic.

Casey’s hardworking wife Jo (Margaret Ivey) is kept in the dark about his newfound career. When she discovers how his take-home pay has been amplified, she’s appalled. Casey has some serious soul-searching to do, but he realizes he’s found his true passion, something grounded in tolerance and open-mindedness.

Up in Mount Adams at the Playhouse, in an adaptation of John Irving’s 1989 novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, the focus is on two disparate but inextricably connected characters — John (Jeremy Webb), who like Casey needs stable ground to understand his life, and his boyhood friend Owen (Sean Mellott), a strange tiny being with a “wrecked voice.” 

A string of strange events, including John’s mother’s tragic death, augmented by surreal visions have left Owen with the unshakeable belief that he’s an instrument of God. Riddled with oddness but unapologetic, Owen goes through life as the object of bullying, doubt and misunderstanding. Nonetheless, his faith — not dictated by any traditional religion, but stated with philosophical and intellectual conviction — leads to an extraordinary and inspiring life, especially for John, who narrates Owen’s story as it affected John’s own trajectory from disbelief to unexpected acceptance.

The production, staged by Artistic Director Blake Robison, employs a cast of 16 actors playing multiple roles. As John’s mother Tabitha — striking in a scarlet dress and memorable for her unconventional behavior — Gardner Reed is a charismatic presence. Naomi Jacobson and Lawrence Redmond play Owen’s extremely strange parents, Laura Gordon is John’s opinionated grandmother and John Lescault plays Rev. Merrill, a minister whose beliefs are haltingly conveyed and challenged by Owen. 

Irving’s dense novel has been distilled with clarity by adapter Simon Bent, and Robison brings added fluidity to the narrative with inventive stagecraft — scenic elements rise from the floor and disappear, and flying technology (with no attempt to hide the wires) augments several of Owen’s surreal feats and insights. It’s a visually captivating show.

Near the play’s end, Owen — now a young adult enrolled in the military, is verbally attacked by the ignorant family of a soldier killed in action in Vietnam. After their spiteful departure, Owen momentarily steps out of his character and into the persona of the caustic comedian Lenny Bruce to deliver (in a more normal voice) a scorching, obscenity-laced monologue that has the haunting ring of an assessment of the 2016 presidential election. That’s another aspect of this intriguing, if not easy, production: Owen Meany’s story from the past has remarkable relevance and pertinence to life, faith and belief in today’s America.

It seems we need the freaks and geeks to keep us pointed in the right direction.

THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA MCBRIDE continues at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati through Sept. 25. A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY runs at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park through Oct. 1.