Since its debut in 2010, the Steppenwolf Theatre Garage Rep series has offered a high profile platform for storefront theater companies to introduce themselves to new audiences. This is one of the many features to admire about the vaunted Chicago cultural institution that is Steppenwolf. It uses its considerable clout to lift other worthwhile voices in the Windy City community that may not otherwise be heard. There are usually hits and misses, but it’s such a wonderful democratic celebration of our town’s theatric diversity.
As part of the 2015 Garage series, Pride Films and Plays presents “Angry Fags,” a stunner of a work by Topher Payne. Directed by Derek Van Barham, this powder keg of a production is a conflict of emotions that hurts in all the right ways. It’s laugh out loud funny, horribly cynical, infuriated, hopeful and full of love. Yes — all of that. Audience members will be uncomfortable, elated, amused and saddened in almost perfectly balanced amounts. Strap in people. It’s a ride worth taking.
In this story of postmodern vigilanteism in Atlanta, best friends and roommates Cooper (James Nedrud) and Bennett (Kevin Webb), according to press materials, “feel helpless and frightened when one of their friends is the victim of an assault at a local bar. Then they feel something new: pure, unfiltered rage.”
Okay, but let’s back up for a second. Before things turn serious, the production begins as a piece of performance art requiring audience participation. A flawless lounge-style singer warms up the crowd with classic standards, and modern tunes with a crooner slant. Even if one doesn’t have time or interest in the play, the price of a ticket is worthwhile just to hear this gentleman perform “Georgia on My Mind.” Seriously. It’s amazingly smooth. When the set concludes, the actual play begins with Senator Allison Haines (Kelli Walker) working the room, shaking attendee hands to welcome them to the venue. And then we’re off, already fully invested.
Bennett is the speechwriter for Senator Haines, the only uncloseted lesbian elected official (emphasis on uncloseted) in the state. Bennett is also smarting from a recent breakup with longtime love Sammy, another Haines campaign volunteer. When a never-seen Sammy becomes the victim of a hate crime, Haines’s self-interested, cautious public response sends Bennett and his Boy Friday Cooper on an empowered quest to destroy the hypocritical, hateful forces that threaten “the tribe.” Bennett and Cooper even develop a slogan. In their minds, “It Gets Better” is too weak, too dependent. Instead they argue, a kinder, safer world is the product of those brave enough to “Make It Better.”
Here’s the thing. Bennett and Cooper do terrible things for noble reasons. Wrongheaded, illegal and dangerous as they are, they’re not at all unlikeable. Quite the contrary. They are loyal, loving, outrageously funny and smart humans who are tired of society’s view of gay men as weak and ineffectual, ripe for bullying and terrorism.
Senator Haines is drawn equally complex. She frames her moral challenges honestly in a scene where she laments the loss of her activism in an effort to retain a job that “pays $17,000 a year,” requires her to wear heels and consistently beg every four years for the privilege. Even Bennett’s new lover Adam, an ambitious Haines strategist from a pistachio farm in California who proves himself to be more predator than bumpkin, is comprehensible. No character’s motivation comes from a place of absurdity.
A whip-smart, relevant and incendiary script from Payne is complemented by savvy media work from Scenic and Media Director G Max Maxin IV and Videographer Alex Thompson. The team integrates the loud, colorful, harassing 24/7 news cycle into the production’s political themes, turning it into an important virtual character. This character is nearly as compelling as the human ones who traverse the stage, inhabited by a group of actors whose compelling, nuanced acting is to be uniformly celebrated.
It’s hard to distill the complicated and worthy Pride Film and Plays’ staging of “Angry Fags” at the Steppenwolf Garage Rep 2015 into an accessible soundbite. But perhaps the company itself gets closest in writing, “[It’s] an Oscar Wilde-meets-Tarantino fever dream about how good ideas go bad, with fascinating forays into American politics, bomb building and pistachios.” If that description doesn’t grab you, how about the promise of layered “ALF” jokes?”