Monday, February 24, 2014

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom—Defunkt Theatre at the Backdoor Theatre—SE Portland

Life In A Death Sentence

This production is written by David Zellnik and directed by Paul Angelo.  It plays at the Backdoor space, at the back of Common Grounds coffee house, at 4319 SE Hawthorne Blvd. through March 22nd.  For more information, go to  It should be noted, this show is done in conjunction with the Cascade AIDS Project and they could both use your tax-deductable support to continue their important work.

This is labeled a love story, a love of life and living, as well as people.  The war with Aids is a battle on many fronts.  The struggle to fight the disease; the conflicts within society for equal recognition in marriage, if you are Gay; heated dealings with society because of your sexual preference; obstacles with religious factions; et. al.  And, in this offering, the choice to live and be happy, even with the threat of a death sentence.

Puppy (Matthew Kern), a writer of porn and confined to a wheelchair, is seeking recognition…and love.  He is lonely and has a secret which, considering his profession, would seem to be an obstacle in his career.  But he soldiers on bravely in spite of this.  His main source of income is working in a nuclear facility, where he frequently, sometimes deliberately, gets exposed to radiation, so that he can be scrubbed down by a stud named Rod (Chip Sherman).

His best friend, Jake (Andrew Bray), at the opening, has been hospitalized, as he withdrew from taking his medications for the disease.  His lover, Samson (Steve Vanderzee), is away a lot on business trips, researching a drug to deal with erectile dysfunction, some samples of which he sends to Jake, who promptly shares them with Puppy.  He also moves in with him, since Samson is so often away.

Puppy, needing more material for his new porn novel, talks Jake into experimenting with the outside world of Gay life and then relating back his experiences.  Being in a wheelchair, Puppy feels that it somewhat limits his sexual encounters, so Jake is a perfect conduit for them.  But he, himself, is also falling for him.

Jake meets a Latino shoe salesman, Addison (again, Chip Sherman), who is married and insists he’s not Gay, but does like to play around.  A relationship blooms, Puppy’s love for Jake grows stronger, and, of course, Samson finally comes home.  I won’t give away the conclusion but the thought one should take away might be that, even if death is all around you, and within you, one need not scrimp on life, living and loving.  To steal from Chip Sherman’s astute observation, from a quote from Lincoln:  “It’s not the years in your life that count.  It’s the life in your years.”  That’s not a Gay thing…it’s a human thing.

Zellnik’s script is strong and powerful.  From whatever observations or personal experiences he has drawn his story, it creates not only a specific view of a slice of life in a Gay world, but a universal lesson as to the preciousness of Life itself.  The direction by Angelo (next project directing Hamlet at Post5, opening March 27th) has the play moving along smoothly and easily, transitioning from one scene to another with minimal set changes.  And the set itself, by Max Ward, is very versatile.

Kern was terrific in The Submission last Fall and is equally good here.  The expressions on his face reveal as much of the story as the dialogue does.  And Sherman, in a variety of roles, always shines in the half dozen plays I’ve seen him in over the last several months.  His body language speaks volumes for him, which highlights the flexibility and depth of the creation of his characters.

Bray is exacting in portraying the complexity of his role.  You seem to discover, as he does, the multiple changes that occur, as he explores new avenues in a wider world that is opening up to him.  And Vanderzee gives a solid performance.  You understand the conflicted feelings that he goes through, in loving his mate but distancing himself at the same time.

I recommend this show but, be warned, it is very adult in nature.  If you do choose to go, tell them Dennis sent you.

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