Missionary Position

Green Thursday's tale of sin and salvation falls flat.

Pray for Rain. Green Thursday Theatre Project's current show needs all the help it can get.

Tucson's "queer and quirky" theater collective has a lot going for it, including a decent set and an able cast that's fun to watch. Its take on W. Somerset Maugham's 1921 story "Rain" ought to be two hours of monsoon madness, but the whole thing is just a drip.

It's partly a matter of unfocused tone, a problem that begins with Maugham. The original story tells of an encounter in monsoon-drenched Pago Pago involving a liberal-minded Scottish physician and his wife, a humorlessly crusading missionary couple and an American woman who turns out to be a whore evading prison time back in San Francisco.

Maugham intentionally makes the missionaries so grotesque in their sin-snuffing Christian zeal that nobody, least of all the good doctor, can take them very seriously. Only gradually does their malign influence on the South Sea island natives and the local traders become apparent. The male missionary makes it his special cause to break the prostitute, save her soul and ship her plump body back to jail in the States.

You can guess how things will turn out several pages ahead, and the story ends in a little burst of melodrama.

The folks at Green Thursday couldn't resist whipping up their own version of "Rain," intending to turn it into a raunchy, campy drag show reset in the monsoon-drenched Southern Arizona way station called Why.

The hooker is now a good-time Mexican transvestite named Chocha Conhuevos, played by Travis Wright--a sure, slender turn-on regardless of your sexual orientation. The gender-bent casting continues with Adrienne Perry as the still-male Dr. McPhailed and David E. Hoffman decked out in Tammy Faye makeup and Dolly Parton extensions as the missionary's wife, Hester. The missionary himself, Jerry Fillwell, is a classic, smug Bible thumper, well-played in a fairly naturalistic way by David Morden.

And therein lies trouble. Despite the abundance of sexual double-entendres and potentially zany stock characters (including Michael Campbell as a crusty barkeep/hotelier), Rain never bubbles over the top.

Director John Kingsbury is an old hand at this sort of thing, having been involved in parodies of ancient Greek theater and other such fun in the Northwest. He ought to know how to make this work. But the script was apparently assembled by several members of the company, and what this show could have used is a single competent hand to slap it silly.

The jokes probably look pretty good on paper, but on stage they fall flat as a drag queen's chest. Especially painful is a running "Who's on first"-style gag revolving around the town's name, and some drop-the-mask business near the end ("Is it time for my big dramatic scene?"). The characters' insulting treatment of a minor Tohono O'odham figure is gratuitous; yeah, these are intolerant people, but their harshness isn't motivated within the scene, and it's just embarrassing.

The Saturday-night audience sat in silence the whole evening, not even mustering applause between acts, which made things seem even more awkward. Green Thursday should consider planting a shill or two to give the hard-working cast some encouragement, although a few well-timed phony laughs won't persuade anyone else that they're seeing a successful show.

What Rain needs most of all is the Gaslight treatment--not as in Charles Boyer, but the local melodrama theater. In the first place, Maugham's "Rain" might not have been the best source material--it's hard to parody something that initially isn't too full of itself. But once committed to the story, Green Thursday should have gone all the way with a more hissable villain and an even campier drag queen. Strangely enough, these two main characters are too human, and nothing in this ostensibly goofball show fits around them, aside from an earnest debate near the end about gender identity and being oneself.

Chocha lip-synchs to a couple of songs early in the play, and Rain would have been much more effective as an all-out Gaslight musical, the characters frequently breaking into live parody songs. (Where is a good music director like Lisa Otey when you need her?)

Green Thursday is still a small, new company--Rain is only its third production--and an extravaganza may lie beyond its means right now. Perhaps it could pull off such a production in another season or two. Here's hoping the company gets back on track and survives long enough to produce a real gully-washer of guffaws.