Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Glory of 'Unnatural Acts'

Unnatural Acts: Harvard’s Secret Court of 1920 is the story about – really – one man’s vision and determination to bring a hidden piece of history from the darkness into the light. To understand the labor of love that this play has been for the creative forces behind it, a brief history of the project:

Unnatural Acts is the brainchild of Tony Speciale and concerns a secret cadre of Harvard University administrators who launched a campus-wide witch hunt into the private lives of its students that resulted in the expulsion of a group of promising young gay men and several subsequent suicides in the 1920s. After reading journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis’ account of the real-life events in a 2003 OUT Magazine article and being further inspired by Yale alumnus William Wright’s 2005 book Harvard's Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals (St. Martin’s Press), Speciale – along with fellow Columbia University MFA candidates Nick Norman and Heather Denyer – gained access to these Secret Court documents held in the Harvard archives in 2006. After Denyer photocopied and meticulously decoded all 500 pages of the fragmentary archival documents, playwright Norman began to write scenes using the Secret Court testimonies and correspondence as his primary source material.

After nearly three years of setbacks – including Norman’s early withdrawal from the project – Speciale continued to tirelessly massage the source material and explore ways to dramatize the story of the Secret Court. In the spring of 2009 – having graduated from Columbia with an MFA in directing and landing a gig as Associate Artistic Director at the Classic Stage Company in New York’s East Village – Speciale and Denyer reconnected and decided to revive the project under a new group collaborative model. The Harvard Project – the play’s initial working title – went through another rigorous round of intense research, improvisational exercises with a newly configured collective of actors and technical crew (dubbed the Plastic Theater) during a five-week period in August of 2009. At the end of this first workshop, a new story structure began to take shape and an entirely new draft of the play was written.

Speciale and his multidisciplinary company presented The Harvard Project shortly after as a staged reading before an audience of more than 200 at The East Thirteenth Theater in New York. Following audience feedback solicited via an electronic questionnaire, a second workshop ensued; this time, the focus of the play expanded to include not only the institutional prejudice suffered by the men of Perkins 28 – which references the dormitory room of undergraduate Ernest Weeks Roberts where the men gathered – but also how their personal relationships buckled under the intense public scrutiny and emotional weight of the scandal. A few short weeks later, a second staged reading took place.

Buoyed by audience reactions to the two staged readings, the ensemble regrouped for a third and final workshop – with the play undergoing a title change. A third staged reading of the newly dubbed Fair Harvard was presented. By April of 2010, Speciale was fielding options to produce the play. It was ultimately his own employer – Classic Stage Company – who committed to producing Fair Harvard, with the stipulation that the ensemble brainstormed a new title.

In May of 2010, Classic Stage Company announced that Unnatural Acts: Harvard’s Secret Court of 1920 would be the crowning jewel of its 2010-2011 season. An official website for the production launched later that same month with the goal of raising $100,000 to cover production costs. The play made its official off-Broadway bow on June 23rd of this year. The show opened to critical acclaim and it enjoyed several extensions before coming to a close on July 31st. Having had the distinct pleasure – no, privilege – of seeing Unnatural Acts on the night before it closed that weekend, it’s easy to see why and one of those rare times when something lived up to the hype surrounding it. (This year’s “it” musical The Book of Mormon also comes to mind.) Not surprisingly, word on the street is that the show’s entire off-Broadway run has been circled by commercial producers who have been gauging the show’s viability for a bigger (Read: Broadway) future outing.

For the uninitiated, live theater has the power to be a transformative experience. It’s the one performance medium where no one – not the audience members, not the actors, not the stage crew – knows the exact outcome of a particular performance. And each outcome can be a tad different, with each night’s performance being slightly nuanced by the onstage chemistry of the ensemble, or unforeseen technical glitches, or an audience’s energy being unexpectedly strong – or weak – on a particular night. There is no greater energy and feeling of possibility and promise than that of a live theatrical show, whether it be a dramatic play, glitzy musical, or an elaborately staged pyrotechnic spectacle of dance and acrobatics (i.e. a Cirque du Soleil production).

Simultaneously intimate and epic in scope, Unnatural Acts is a haunting slice of gay American history that resonates with both the timeliness and timelessness of its societal intolerance theme. Indeed, as we bear witness to same-sex marriages taking place all around New York, Unnatural Acts reminds us of just how far we’ve come (while there’s always the Westboro Baptist Church and the Vatican to remind us just how far we’ve yet to go). Speciale and his company of 11 actors (several playing dual roles) transport audiences back to the hallowed halls of the venerable university, where the 1920s in the post-WWI weary Cambridge landscape were beginning to roar louder than pre-war moral values.

The story is straightforward: The discovery of incriminating letters following an undergraduate’s suicide prompts a five-member secret panel of Harvard administrators to launch an aggressive investigation into campus “homosexualism”. In an effort to rid their respected campus of this “disease”, school authorities – acting with neither scruples nor restraint under the protective cloak of the virulent homophobia of the time period – go about their inquisition unchecked, audaciously asking the young men about masturbatory habits, their sexual relations with same and opposite gender partners, and leading questions about their comrades. When one student finally cracks under the terror of their unrelenting interrogation, the floodgates open and names are named. With the cards stacked against them and under the manipulation and emotional blackmail of the panel, each successive student folds under the pressure and one betrayal after another seemingly seals the undergrads’ fates.

There is a palpable sense of fraternity among the show’s stellar ensemble — no doubt due in large part to the improvisational aspect of the way the story fleshed out and the dual roles that several play as co-authors. Nick Westrate, in particular, delivers a knockout performance as Ernest Weeks Roberts, son of a retired congressman and social lynchpin of the daringly decadent covert company of gay young men who gather in defiance of prohibition to drink gin, swish about in unabashed rebelliousness against the reigning heterocentric ideals of the day, and engage in taboo acts in their exploration of the love that dare not speak its name. That these gay bacchanals take place in a dormitory within the uptight world of conservative Harvard University speaks to the world of privilege these young men come from and both their recklessness and arrogance in believing in their own invincibility. Even assistant classics professor Donald Clark (Jerry Marsini) walks that fine line between moralistic tradition and social evolution, guardedly discussing banned books of the time like Havelock Ellis’ Sexual Inversion with a curious student.

Other performance highlights from Unnatural Acts include Jess Burkle's interpretation of Edward Say, Roberts’ flamboyant best friend. Burkle deftly balances the character’s exaggerated mannerisms and howlingly funny one-liners early on in the play with the decidedly weightier emotional material that comes later with remarkable skill. Actors Joe Curnutte and Frank De Julio also shine. Curnutte plays upperclassman Nathaniel Wollf, theatrical mentor to De Julio’s sophomore and aspiring thespian Keith Smerage. The big brother/little brother dynamic between the two is rendered beautifully and believably by these two actors and the love that blossoms between them comes across as achingly honest. When one betrays the other during the interrogations in a desperate attempt to salvage a future in medical school, the other’s sense of loss – ingeniously set against a Shakespearian monologue that the two rehearsed earlier in their courtship – will absolutely break your heart.

The striking theatricality of this engrossing docudrama is greatly enhanced by Justin Townsend’s formidable lighting work, particularly his use of shadow and light during the tribunal scenes or when he shrewdly backlight’s the set’s towering bookcase backdrop to dramatic effect. The theatre’s three-quarter space adds an almost voyeuristic intimacy that heightens Speciale’s highly stylized staging, while Walt Spangler’s understated period set design adds a neutral, masculine backdrop that allows costumes by Andrea Lauer to give marvelous glimpses of the young men’s individuality lurking under the traditionalism of the day’s dress code. Factor in an exquisitely choreographed show-stopping scene in the first act that features overlapping montages performed in slow-motion, and Unnatural Acts has all the fluidity of an extravagant musical — without either music or extravagance.

Even when the play touches on the histrionic tone of Matt Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 play The Boys in the Band – particularly during an extended party scene in Perkins 28 – it never veers completely off course and retains its prevalent air of authenticity. Although the play loses a bit of its dramatic momentum early in its second act (partially due, I think, to the intermission itself), it builds to a heartrending climax that includes a tour de force monologue by actor Brad Koed who is accompanied by the rest of the ensemble with a chorus of dialogue snippets and a choreographed ballet of synchronized motions that intensify in volume and tempo. By the time Koed’s Eugene Cummings begs the central question of the play – “If it occurs in nature, how can it be unnatural?" – the audience is as emotionally wrought as the actors appear. Unnatural Acts ends with a simple roll call of the inevitable fates of its characters – admittedly an overused device in such epilogues but forgivable here because it seems logically appropriate and affords the story its final dramatic punches to the gut.

Simply unforgettable in every sense of the word, Unnatural Acts is live theater at its very best — easily on par with A Normal Heart in terms of its emotional resonance and compelling narrative.

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