The Arts
March 7-13, 2007

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'Torch Song Trilogy'

Photograph by Dale Albright
Confessional: Tomas Theriot (foreground) and Katie Chaidez star in 'Torch Song Trilogy.'

All Lit Up

'Torch Song Trilogy' gets its acts back at Theatre Q

By Marianne Messina

THEATRE Q's production at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (second stage) puts the title back into Torch Song Trilogy. The movie version seemed to confuse torch song with swan song (being all about the one who died), and it lost the trilogy. Director Mike Ward makes sure that each of the three acts in this trilogy has its own texture, though they all begin with torch singer "Lady Blues" (Katie Chaidez), dressed for the mood and singing relevant lyrics. In Act 1, she is in a slinky gown with low-cut neckline accented by diamonds on her sash and earrings as she sings "One lonely rooster, that's me." That's playwright Harvey Fierstein's ironic stance: adoring the drama while laughing at it.

We first meet female impersonator Arnold Beckoff (Tomas Theriot) backstage in a quick-witted monologue as he addresses us from his dressing mirror and warns us about dating men "in the state of confession." At this performance, when he asks the audience to turn the other way (so he can stuff his top with falsies), he breaks the fourth wall, and one woman in the audience plays along. So he directs the next line straight to her: "Couldn't you at least close your eyes?" Like the torch singers he impersonates, Arnold doesn't have much luck with men. In Act 1, he meets Ed (Caleb Hoffert), who is bisexual and conflicted. In Act 2, Arnold and his new beau, the much younger Alan (Matthew Lowe), spend the weekend with Ed and his girlfriend Laurel (Amanda Mitchell), which turns out to be a farce—like series of lies, seductions and chat-ups interruptus.

In the final act, many years later, Arnold has almost managed to put together a happy home, when his mother (Shareen Merriam) comes to stay and exhume some old bones of contention. Fierstein has pumped his nearly autobiographical Arnold full of clever lines, snappy rhythms, bouncing emotions and varied humor, sometimes caustic, sometimes sad. Arnold is a treasure trove of self-revelation—"I'm lousy in bed. It's true. I never relax enough"—and cynical commentary—"The innocent must suffer, not the guilty; this is America." Credit goes to Theriot for putting his stamp on a character most notably played by the indomitable Fierstein himself. Theriot is rangy enough to hit all the emotions while making Arnold lovable, wise in his folly, sympathetic but not sappy and, most importantly, real. The chemistry between him and Merriam, who gives a strong performance as Mrs. Beckoff, comes close to family, wrapping heated arguments in a masterpiece of timing.

As Arnold's adopted son, David, the delightful Vincent Palo seems quite comfortable in his skin, balancing all the qualities of a kid who can both enrich and challenge Arnold's life—bratty, cagey, yet poised and even-keeled, with the cock-sure wisdom of youth and a reluctant but ultimately devoted tenderness. Developing the distinct texture of each act with set designer Ron Gasparinetti, from dressing room to bedroom to living room, director Mike Ward enhances the sense of Arnold's progress toward wholeness. And they set Lady Blues up like a guiding icon. Flanked by a grand piano, she sings from a high glass-encased balcony looking down on the action. This goddess' whimsy is marked by changing lyrics (one song contributed by music director Michael O'Dell) and evolving costumes (design team Melinda McDermott and Margarette Laizure).

In the second act as the two couples mix and match on the huge bed, Chaidez's formal gown gives way to a black vest and dress jacket as if she's emceeing a variety show. By the third act, glitter makeup still glistening, Chaidez is singing, "It's so nice to have a man around the house" in a party dress. Not so much sultry as dreamy and fantastical and without the belt-out voice, Chaidez's gentle, expressive interpretations of the old torch songs match what Theriot has done with the husky-voiced, loud-mouthed Fierstein role for a production that smoothes out the shrill edges with warmth.

Torch Song Trilogy, a Theatre Q production, plays Friday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through March 17 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Second Stage, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $20-$225. (650.903.6000)

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