Evolving Views

Solid 'Fallen Angels' and 'Avenue Q' touch on changing ideas about sexuality

Last weekend, Tucson celebrated Pride, a festival for the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender community.

Meanwhile, two Tucson theaters were showing very different theatrical productions that could be said to have "queer" themes—the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre opened the contemporary musical Avenue Q, while Live Theatre Workshop resuscitated Noël Coward's 1925 farce Fallen Angels.

Both are solid, entertaining productions. Yet the differences between them demonstrate just how radically our public conversation about sex and sexuality has evolved.

One of the characters in the irreverent Avenue Q just might be gay, and the musical won mainstream adoration. With music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and a book by Jeff Whitty, it was a critically acclaimed off-Broadway smash in 2003, and went on to a successful Broadway run and a stint at the Wynn in Las Vegas.

The musical uses puppets to riff on the children's program Sesame Street. (Just as in Sesame Street, the puppets mix with "live action" actors.) ART's production mimics that famous street with a backdrop of brownstone houses. The impressive set, designed by Clare P. Rowe, can come apart and light up in order to suggest action both outside and inside the avenue's buildings.

The young-adult characters who live on Avenue Q, a low-rent area in Brooklyn, are a mixed bunch. Princeton is a new college graduate, portrayed by a preppy-looking looking puppet controlled by actor Michael Calvoni. Princeton meets kindergarten-teaching-aide Kate Monster, a puppet handled by actor Marie MacKnight.

There's also Rod (Cooper Hallstrom) and Nicky (Chris Karl), roommates who resemble the iconic Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie. Nodding to many folks' sense that Bert and Ernie's relationship is a little queer, Nicky wishes Rod could feel comfortable coming out.

Despite the upbeat puppetry, Avenue Q tackles the thoroughly adult themes of how to find a job, a suitable sex partner and a sense of purpose. The show explores the question of Rod's sexuality in the song "If You Were Gay," and covers other weighty themes in "What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?" and "The Internet Is for Porn." It's Avenue Q's frank discussion of uncomfortable topics via catchy, cheerful tunes that makes it so winning.

In addition to director Rob Gretta and musical director Monte Ralstin, the production has a director of puppetry: Michelle Lane, a UA alumna who was in Avenue Q at the Wynn and on Broadway. Her influence is clear in the actors' skillful handling of the puppets —by the end of the evening, it's possible to differentiate subtle changes in the expressions of MacKnight's Kate and Calvoni's Princeton.

Not all of the student performers' voices are of professional quality, of course, but the show is tight and polished. Whether you're new to the neighborhood of Avenue Q, or it's already a favorite, this production is worth checking out.

In contrast to the adulation the gay-friendly Avenue Q received, British writer Coward's play Fallen Angels was met with bitter backlash upon its 1925 debut.

Angels concerns two married women, Julia (played here by Jodi Ajanovic) and Jane (Maria Caprile). Both once had an affair with the same charming Frenchman. Upon receiving news that he has arrived in London, the two friends work themselves into a veritable frenzy of excitement.

The notion of women freely admitting to sexual desire was met at the time with shock. According to Philip Hoare's Noel Coward: A Biography, the majority of critics found the play "vulgar, disgusting, shocking, nauseating, vile, obscene, degenerate."

The notion that Fallen Angels was degenerate might also have had something to do with the playwright. While Coward never acknowledged his homosexuality in public, he discussed it frankly in letters.

"According to some reports," Hoare writes, the play's premise "was based on a real-life episode when Noel and (his friend) Gladys were both dressed up waiting for a mutual boyfriend to arrive."

Nowadays, of course, the play comes across as quite tame. The action all takes place in one room, a minimal but lovely early 20th-century interior designed and constructed by Richard and Amanda Gremel. No one actually utters the word "sex," and everyone communicates in the stylized, witty bon mots for which Coward is known.

Yet it's still comically disconcerting to see the women be so cold toward their husbands, the mild-mannered Fred (Cliff Madison) and Willy (Rick Shipman). In a nice touch by costume-designer Samantha Cormier, the husbands appear together in nearly matching golf sweaters, indicating their essential similarity and gaucheness.

All of the cast members are lively and engaged. Ajanovic and Caprile both have a sense of physical comedy and deliciously amp up the distress as Julia and Jane become more and more overwrought.

At a few points, something felt a little off on opening night. It was hard to tell if this was because of Chris Wilken's direction or snafus by the cast, but there was one awkward pause and one mistimed entrance. Still, overall, the production was an enjoyable blast from the past.

Seeing Avenue Q and Fallen Angels side by side is a timely reminder that the medium of theater, even when providing superficial entertainment, has consistently pushed the boundaries of what can and cannot be publicly discussed. This, one hopes, has paved the way (and will continue to pave the way) for a more open and accepting society.

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