“Of Masquerade and Rhymes” is Queer Theatre Kalamazoo’s latest offering. WMUK's reviewer Gordon Bolar says it’s an inviting piece of theatre about a lesbian relationship that blooms, wilts, and ultimately transforms the lives of two women and the friends who surround them.
Although this story by local playwright PS Lorio holds our attention until the end, it’s really her well developed and appealing characters that take center stage in the intimate space of Queer Theatre Kalamazoo. Jesse, played by Laura Kay Henderson, is a hard-boiled writer who holds regular meetings of her poetry group in her urban apartment. We soon learn that Jesse lost her female partner to an auto accident two years earlier. Although Jesse says she isn’t currently open to another relationship and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, she does tolerate the foibles of her friends upstairs.
At the outset, Henderson wisely presents an emotionally reserved character. That leaves her somewhere to go when Hannah, played by Stefani Lynn Wallace, wanders into Jesse’s writing session and captures her attention.
Wallace’s Hannah is at first a timid housewife, obedient to the exacting whims of her husband and the needs of her children. As Jesse’s courtship of her develops, however, Wallace shows us a character with backbone and one who is awakening to a new set of needs, not all of which are sexual.
What makes all of this work is the straightforward and honest manner in which director Sarah E. MacLean handles the bonding of these two characters. Jesse’s gentle seduction of Hannah is affected by degrees as she listens to and engages Hannah’s interests prior to a dance that leads to their initial embrace.
The result is a believable relationship that grows steadily, allowing both the audience and the actors to adjust to the outcome, as well as to what’s at stake for this new couple.
Calvin, played with sensitivity and conviction by Jack Pinto, sounds a cautionary note. He portrays Jesse’s gay friend who looks in on her from time to time and brings her mail. He warns Jesse not to fall too hard for Hannah, reminding her that her new-found love is married and has children. Pinto’s multi-faceted performance is key to the arc of Jesse’s character. He provides the slap in the face that arrests Jesse’s head-long tumble into self-pity and helps restore her humanity.
Along for the ride is the delightfully bubbly Molly, a belly dancing neighbor. Sam Slottow breathes energy and humor into this quirky supporting role, lighting up Jesse’s down moments when possible, and the stage, whenever she’s on it.
Director MacLean finds some creative ways to extend the confines of Jesse’s living room area with minimal décor, such as a downstage window frame and an implied hall connecting an offstage kitchen in the rear of the audience. However this production could benefit from better definition and focus of the playing space. Black curtains or masking for the back wall and sides of the stage would be a welcome addition.
These improvements would facilitate the aesthetics of exits, low lighting levels, blackouts, and scene changes, some of which seemed muddy, slow, and out of step with the crisp interactions and business in Lorio’s script on opening night.
One of the appealing aspects of Lorio’s writing is the poetry in and between the lines of her dialogue. Besides Jesse, the resident writer in this community of friends, each character finds ways to voice concerns that elevate everyday speech.
One instance of this includes Molly’s narrative of the dragon of death that stalks each of us from the day we are born. Jacob Burrell, as Mitchell, follows this with a description of the stark emptiness of the apartment vacated by his recently deceased partner.
Lorio’s uncompromising conclusion for this story is one which ties up loose ends, but refuses to give us the conventional happy ending.
If there’s anything missing from “Of Masquerade and Rhymes” it’s an audience to appreciate the quiet moments and the humor of this thoughtful production at Queer Theatre Kalamazoo.