by Everett Goldner · October 19, 2014
There’s a moment in a late ‘90s film called Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (okay, okay, stay with me) in which uber-ditz Lisa Kudrow, confronted by brainy-ditz Mira Sorvino with the specter of their lives not being “good enough” for their former classmates, retorts that she thought everything in high school was a blast, and until Mira informed her otherwise, she thought everything since high school was a blast.
I kept pawing at Lisa’s mini-manifesto while watching Mare in the Men’s Room, a new play by David Kimple – it seemed to me to somehow sum up the high dive board that the firmly 21st century, sometimes existential ballroom drag of this play, leapt from. Girls just wanted to have fun, but then they grew up and learned about commitment and impressions and men and women and the ephemerality of inspiration and they tried to figure out what it all means. And it was really fucking tricky. Why should newly-divorced Briget, who can’t seem to let go of her hatefully flighty ex, rock the house as male drag king Vander Clyde and walk the tightrope of her own dreams and desires? Because it might be fun? But what if she sucks? What if no one cares? What if all she wanted was to play dress up? As she refuses on opening night to dress up, our narrator and queen extraordinaire Clair De Lune, played with Rocky Horror-esque relish by Chad Bradford, dresses (and smacks) her down: it’s performance art, baby, and you’ve come a long way out of the past to grasp the genderfluid dream we live in now, so man up, and oh, by the way – the dream keeps us all from killing ourselves. No pressure.
I first encountered Kimple’s work at FringeNYC this summer, where MMF, his debut piece, was up. That play was a compression chamber of emotional storms and intellectual tornados beating around in the souls of its romantic triangle. Mare is a different play – larger (both in terms of show venue and storyline), with different aims, and at times seems infected by wanderlust. Themes emerge through both works – Kimple loves naturalistic run-on exchanges that veer across the road from noble-minded philosophizing to interior monologue to slapstick and back again – and of course, he is fundamentally concerned with the spectrum of homosexuality and LGBTQ (“RSTUV,” as Clair’s draggy sidekick notes). Within this salad of sexual identity swaps is there really such a thing as love? Or art? Or fulfillment? Maybe, maybe not – Mare is ultimately less concerned with answering the questions it stews in than with acting as Briget’s titular horse, a vehicle to take her from shy girl to devoted, co-dependent wife, to broken-glass vulnerability and self-revelation and from there to gallop on into superstardom. Of these four acts, the play thrives in the first three, leaving the last to feel rather abrupt and less an ending than a punctuation. But though it takes its time getting there, the eventual unveiling of Vander Clyde is well-worth it, when in a page and a half of surrealist poetry (taken in part from Jean Cocteau), actress Courtney Alana Ward takes drag from the arena of bemusement to something finer. Ward’s skill as an actress is to approach the revelation of the self with detachment and an awareness of the connection between performer and audience that can make live theater electric. We see glimpses of it throughout the show (as we did in MMF), but not until Vander Clyde’s debut is Ward allowed to command attention in a way that seems intuitive and totally organic, and to see it is to wish that the show let it happen a lot more often.
The overall effect that Mare leaves is of a script in search of a style that lets Kimple’s characters really be at home within the walls of plot and dialogue. The style isn’t always crystal-clear – it’s nonplussing to hear the pronouncement “we all live in a straight man’s world” in a play that has no straight male characters, and Mare in the end is equal parts story and ramble through the wilds of gender-power dynamics, but that’s in keeping with characters who are never more opaque to themselves than they are with each other, and can only finally become themselves when alone with a crowd of strangers expecting them to be someone else.