Compelling theater obviously begins with thought-provoking scripts. When these are paired with directors who have a vision for the most visceral way to expose each play’s emotional core, audiences are in for a treat. Sometimes the material builds gradually in real time in an essentially realistic tone around issues torn from the headlines like “American Son.” Other times, we’re asked to cross over to the avant-garde in a retrospective whirl that asks us to make leaps of imagination to connect the dots as in “The Velocity of Gary.”
However, both shows which opened last week on opposite sides of the Bay share some similar themes despite their divergent styles. What is the true definition of family and who gets to define it? What is it like to be perceived as the “other” as you strive to find your authentic self and make your way forward in our complicated world?
The Velocity of Gary (Not His Real Name) by James Still
Off Kilter Theatre
The MAR St. Pete, 2309 Central Ave., St. Pete
Tickets: $25. Through March 21
Down St. Petersburg way, a new avant-garde theatre company, Off Kilter, proves that non-traditional storytelling can create memorable images to evoke empathy in audiences.
The cringey Al Franken once joked that “it’s harder to be gay than Black, because you don’t have to tell your parents that you’re black.” Gags are not great sociology, but it certainly seems true as each play begins. Unlike Jamal, the over-achieving “American Son,” the young man at the center of “The Velocity of Gary (Not His Real Name)” is a troubled soul. Any white privilege that Gary had has been squandered. We don’t know much about his back story, but we do know that he’s currently a gay “hustler” in a leather jacket and a magic pair of leopard print briefs.
Director and sound designer, Derek Baxter, turns the limitations of the space to his advantage. He’s got black curtains, a few carefully placed white photographer's lights on tripods and an oriental rug to define a postage stamp-sized stage. It’s packed like an attic with tons of colorful props that Hippie Griswold (Gary/Body) uses to create images for this episodic play which takes place “in the past, in the present, and in the infinity of Gary‘s mind.” Due to the close proximity of the audience and the need for COVID-19 caution, Gary’s voice becomes a gripping unseen omniscient narrator (a versatile, expressive Stephen C. Fox). Splitting Gary is an inspired choice, which frees Baxter to put the mute Griswold in a series of masks to great effect.
Gary (not his real name) follows a roller coaster life journey, like a LGBTQ Peer Gynt or Gulliver, with a naive, optimistic mantra of “anything can happen.” Eight episodes include a pinball arcade, Batman and Robin, vampires and Ponce de Leon, addiction and AIDS, selling plasma, phone sex, cocaine and instant breakfast, a strobe pacifier necklace, glow sticks, a touching tea party with a black-haired Barbie sporting yellow platform heels, and a hardworking cutout of Michelangelo’s David who ends as a touching avatar for Gary’s chosen bohemian family. It’s a marvelous pop culture kaleidoscope about “love, struggle, heartbreak, losing yourself,” and ultimately, “finding yourself.” If you don’t know Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces,” be sure to listen before you go.
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