Love! Honor! Valor! Wonderful!
Review by Charlene Baldridge
A certain critic once asked for a dictionary of superlatives with which to describe an opera she had seen. Tickled me so much I made one and sent it to her. Now I wish I'd saved a copy for myself.
Having seen Diversionary Theatre's production of Terrence McNally's big-hearted, Tony Award-winning "Love! Valour! Compasson!" I find myself in the same predicament. There are not enough superlatives to describe it. Co-directors Tim Irving and Sean Murray did a superb job of casting, and Irving is once again the best Buzz imaginable, this time even more poignant.
The veteran viewer of "Love! Valour! Compasson!" knows that many times the role of the young dancer named Ramon is played by a young man with such a gorgeous body that one forgets his performance. Until now I never realized how funny, dear and deep the character is. Newcomer Jeremiah M. Maestas' rendering of Ramon's "I love myself when ..." speech is a paean to youth and sensuality. Maestas holds his own in a cast filled with seasoned pros, all giving the best performances of their lives. Diversionary originally produced "Love! Valour! Compassion!" in 1997, the same year the film emerged. Three actors reprise their roles Irving, Dan Gruber and Joshua Harrell.
Irving, who co-directs the 2003 production with Sean Murray, portrays Buzz, a musical theater queen self-described as "the love child of Liberace and Judy Garland." Buzz gets the funniest lines and some of the most imaginative costumes, one of which provides the show's primo sight gag. Buzz is volatile, expansive, explosive and ultimately heartbreaking.
Irving's Act III scene with Gruber is an emotional depth charge; tsunamis fill the space. Both actors have deepened in the past six years.
Gruber's Perry narrates, as do most of the eight characters at one time or another, imbuing the work with intimacy. An attorney, Perry is the keeper of the flame, McNally's Greek chorus.
Harrell portrays Arthur, Perry's adoring, thoroughly understanding lover of 14 years. "We're role models, now," Perry says, "and that is stressful."
John Jeckyll's boy toy, Ramon, seduces Bobby, the blind boyfriend of the weekend party host, Gregory, a marvelous portrayal by Manuel J. Fernandes, Gregory is a Broadway choreographer dealing with blocked creativity, an aging body and his consuming love for Bobby (Vincent Smetana).
John, who has an AIDS-afflicted twin named James, is self-described as evil, but it's good for us that he reads Gregory's diary throughout the play.
The identical twins are subtly portrayed by San Diego newcomer Dennis J. Scott, who played Ernst in Murray's acclaimed production of "Cabaret" at North Coast Rep. Scott's John never sinks to a caricature of evil, and one recognizes James instantly. Nonetheless, one wishes that McNally had not made James so thoroughly saintly. The poor man does not get what saintly deserves, though who can ever promise another he will not die alone?
The play is set at a time when a diagnosis of AIDS was a death sentence, but it's not about AIDS or nudity or promiscuity. It's about love, the bonds of friendship and human frailty regardless of one's sexual preference. Would that all those who protested the film's recent airing on Fox could see it. They might learn that the Other is not really different from us at all.
Charlene Baldridge is a writer and artist living in San Diego.