‘Yank!’ — A different kind of bravery

By John Lyle Belden

Emotions run high during war — excitement, anger, patriotic fervor, devotion, and love. For some soldiers thrown into the crucible that was World War II, the ones they wanted to embrace with all their might weren’t the pin-up girls.

This is the world of “Yank!” the musical making its Indianapolis premiere at the District Theatre.

Stuart (Jonathan Krouse) answered the call to join the fight against Hitler and Tojo, but first he has to fit in with Charlie Company. He can barely hold a rifle, and he’s not sure about his feelings towards his fellow soldiers, especially Mitch (Tanner Brunson), the only one to treat him with kindness. The others suspect he’s different, and even call him “Light-Loafers,” but they come to accept him, because “your squad is your squad.”

On the way to the front, two things happen: Stuart and Mitch start to explore their feelings for each other, and Stuart meets Artie (D. Scott Robinson), a photographer for Yank! magazine, wise to and willing part of the gay underground just outside the U.S. Army’s notice. While Charlie Company goes to combat, Stuart — an aspiring writer, keeping a detailed journal — joins Artie as reporters behind the lines.

Stu is doing well out of harm’s way, but he still has feelings for Mitch. Then he gets the assignment to write about his old unit, and how war has changed them. More changes are coming for Stu, and he will discover how war is especially hell for a gay soldier — facing danger from his own people as well as the enemy.

The cast includes Isaac Becker, Dominic Piedmonte, Scott Fleshood, Joshua Cox and Bryant Mehay as fellow soldiers. Jerry Beasley, Lance Gray and Kevin Bell play hardened officers and NCOs, as well as somewhat softer characters. Jessica Hawkins wonderfully portrays “every woman,” from radio entertainers to a lesbian WAC working for Gen. MacArthur.  

Krouse and Brunson turn in wonderful performances, one constantly feeling deeply, the other deeply conflicted. The supporting cast is solid; Beasley earns his stripes. And with us usually seeing Robinson these days behind the scenes as producer or director, it’s good to see him show his excellence as an actor.

This is a different kind of love story, but still touching — love is love, after all — and an eye-opening look at a hidden part of our history. While the characters are fictional, there was a Yank! Magazine, and playwright David Zellnik thoroughly researched the secret lives of gay soldiers and sailors of the era.

The songs, by David and his brother Joseph Zellnik, are snappy and sentimental in a style befitting the 1940s setting, including some interesting harmony.

Had this been a boy-meets-girl rather than boy-meets-boy, “Yank!” would look like the cinema hit of 1945. But it’s 2019, and LGBTQ GIs are only now living out of the closet. Thus, this show is equal parts entertaining and important. Director Tim Spradlin deserves praise for bringing this gem to downtown Indy, as well as IndyFringe for hosting it at the District (former site of Theatre on the Square), 627 Massachusetts Ave.

This production runs through March 24; get info and tickets at indyfringe.org.

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Bring on BOLT, with a ‘sad story’ worthy of the telling

By John Lyle Belden

A new Indianapolis theatre company, Be Out Loud Theatre (BOLT), comes “out” in a big way with the Tennessee Williams rarity “And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens.” For one of Williams’ short dramas, this “play in two scenes” is a rich, satisfying gumbo of New Orleans sass and sadness.

As confessed “transvestite” Candy Delaney (Lance Gray) approaches her 35th birthday, she brings home Karl (Chris Saunders), a brooding, conflicted man, in the hopes of making him as close to a husband as she can hope for. The French Quarter provides some shelter to local gays – as does Candy, a landlord of three properties: “Queens make the best tenants,” she purrs – but this is still around 1960 and being “queer” can be dangerous. Candy’s dreams of normalcy are marred by the catty upstairs renters, Alvin (Joe Barsanti) and Jerry (Christian Condra).

Given the title (and that I was unfamiliar with the script), I couldn’t help bracing myself for a fatal moment. But actually the plot is more about the life of queens in that time and place. In Tennessee Williams fashion, the story is so much about wanting not only what one doesn’t have, but what might not be possible. Gray commands the stage as Candy spins her dreams, her plans, somehow believing she can will them to be. Saunders projects danger, even just standing still; he wants things – money, affection, to be comfortable with himself – but the stigma of the queer keeps them just out of reach of his clenched fists.

BOLT founder and director Michael Swinford makes a bold statement with his premiere production. He said he wanted to start with an LGBTQ-focused play that predates Stonewall and the AIDS generation. For a stark reminder of how life used to be – even in carefree New Orleans – this was an excellent story to tell.

“And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens” plays through Jan. 20 on the cabaret second stage at The District Theatre (former home of Theatre on the Square), 627 Massachusetts Ave., now managed by IndyFringe. For info and tickets, visit http://www.indyfringe.org.

KCT ‘Slingbacks’ about more than perils of being gay in high school

By John Lyle Belden

I had the good fortune to not only see the new comedy, “Another Man’s Slingbacks,” presented by Khaos Company Theatre through June 24, but also to see it with playwright Andrew Black.

In this play – set in fictional Lincoln High School, Anderson County, U.S.A. – the very masculine star quarterback Killer Kerrigan (Donovan Whitney) leads fellow jocks Romeo (David Alfonzo) and Meatwad (Josh Weaver) as they hit on the girls, Barbra (Sabrina Lang) and Lana (Gorgi Parks Fulper); pick on the New Kid, Devon (Kyle Dorsch); and torture gay classmate Ricky Malone (Andre Guimaraes).

Fed up with the abuse, Ricky wishes that Killer could be made to feel what it’s like to be homosexual. This brings the attention of a Fairy Godmother (David Malloy), complete with fabulous wings, glitter and a smoker’s voice, who presents Ricky a lengthy contract for a Standard Transformation Spell. Disregarding all the small print, the desperate boy signs.

Suddenly, Killer understands fashion and Broadway, and feels aroused by his teammates. Will he still be Big Man on Campus?

Gay playwright Black, who had been working on this play since 2010 (some references were updated to set it in this year), didn’t settle for just indulging in queer stereotypes. The resulting story explores the fact that to come of age, all teens need to “come out” of the expectations and roles set for them by the social constraints of high school.

“What could a straight person learn?” from being gay, Black said he asked himself. “When you discover you are attracted to your own gender, you have to rewrite the rules for yourself. You have to make strong choices.”

Killer is forced to adapt to a new mindset, but he’s not the only person who needs to change and grow, as Ricky finds when simply wishing revenge on his tormentor doesn’t make his own life better.

Whitney bravely takes on all aspects of Killer’s character. Lang is also excellent, as Barbra tries to adjust to Killer’s changes making him more attractive, yet more distant. Weaver as “the Meat Man” turns his simpleton into a scene-stealer. Molloy solidly commits to his no-nonsense magical persona, yet it is Dorsch who looks natural in high heels. Guimaraes, having just graduated high school in real life, is familiar with its uncertainties. Alfonzo ably embodies a go-along-to-get-along character. Fulper surprises with her devious role. And kudos to James Mannan for playing various grown-ups.

Direction was provided by KCT artistic director Kaylee Spivey Good, in one of her last jobs before going overseas later this summer to earn her Masters in theatre.

There are two more performances scheduled, 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, at KCT’s new stage 1775 N. Sherman Drive on Indy’s east side. Get info and tickets at www.kctindy.com.

Fringe review: I’m Not Gay

By John Lyle Belden

Senator Bobby insists, “I’m Not Gay,” but in this comic drama by Matthew Barron, presented by Submatter Press at the Marrott Center, no one believes it. The press seems to prefer taking the word of the man he was sleeping with.

Russell Lee Watson plays the Indiana Senator, who doesn’t understand why no one believes him. He’s sure that all men have his urges, but since being gay is wrong, they just suppress them better than he does. This is frustrating to his wife Margaret (Kerra D. Wagener), who accepts him regardless, and his closest advisor George (Aaron Cleveland), who has been in love with him for years.

These characters struggle to sort out how they feel and what they mean to each other, generating quite a few laughs on the way. Daniel Klingler rounds out the cast as gay bar worker Billie Joe, who dispenses much-needed wisdom as only a way-out-of-the-closet bartender can.

The play doesn’t come down too hard on hypocrisy or the state of politics today, focusing on the very human struggles of three personalities stuck in a world where appearances are everything and you are only as good or relevant as your last soundbite or headline. Between these actors’ performance and Barron’s words, they actually make us feel for a conservative blowhard; yet that may not be a bad thing.