Set at the memorial service for a female-to-male transsexual, Walking the Dead sure doesn’t look as if it’s going to be much fun. But Keith Curran’s ensemble work is witty, surprising, and dense with meaning; the story is complex enough to stand up to repeated viewings, and the theatre Q interpretation is funny enough to make that thought palatable, even if there is some heartrending second-act violence.
The story begins as Maya (Skyler Cooper), a renowned performance artist and lecturer, sets up the chairs for a memorial service honoring her lover, Homer. It’s not enough for those present to stand up and say a word or two about their departed friend, though; Maya is determined that Homer’s friends, family, and acquaintances take the artistic opportunity to “compile Veronica.”
Oh, right. Homer was Veronica when Maya met him. Her. And between being Veronica and Homer, there was Ronald. Which not only confused everyone, but brings out some telling things about what they wanted her/him to be — dutiful daughter, lesbian girlfriend, an example of everything wrong with modern scalpel-happy society, the ticket to an award-winning documentary. But s/he blithely slipped through the representational nets, and in the messily gorgeous interactions that unfold between family and loved ones, a larger picture emerges.
Although Walking has many of the same elements of so many gay-themed shows, it moves past the dull sameness of so much queer theater. It even pokes fun at some of the genre’s cliches as it plays with stock characters and themes. This is the story that comes after every drearily sincere play that features four or more gay men earnestly battling it out in someone’s swank living room after the death of a member of the group, or two women suffering because they must live The Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name. These people have real jobs, real lives, and real frailties.
Bernadette Quattrone as Veronica/Homer has a hell of a challenge here, playing first a woman who feels like a man, then a surgically engineered man, and then a surgically engineered man who has to assume female drag for an event. It is this last stage in which Quattrone is most believable; Homer is far more awkward in dress and heels than Veronica ever was in overalls and slicked-back hair.
Veronica/Homer’s very Catholic mother “just doesn’t get it,” and although she is eventually redeemed, it’s not the cloying over-the-top kind from all those ’80s Hallmark films about families making peace with their dying sons. Dottie (Maggie Ziomek) knows exactly what kind of story she’s in, even turning on the audience at one point to say that she knows we want to villianize her for not understanding her child’s true nature. She also has a great riff about how frightening the holidays can be for parents, for “it seems children see holidays as … a time to get all serious and confessional.”
The other supersassy character is Bobby, Chess’ boyfriend, who makes clear from the very beginning that he plans to have the last word. “Who are you people?” he demands of the audience. “Are you on some sort of memorial service mailing list?” Mark Vogler is boorish yet seductive as the angry, domineering Bobby. “I am tumescing,” he purrs on the first disastrous date with Chess, and Vogler makes that seem like a really good seduction line. The relationship between Bobby and Chess is one of the most interesting in the play. Bobby can be horribly cruel, but there’s a fantastic moment of vulnerability between the two when the text they’re supposed to be replicating, the story of what happened afterwards, and the present in which the play takes place begin to converge.
Ryan Tasker inhabits “habitual volunteer” Chess immaculately, from a nervous tic of squeezing at the seams of his slacks to a moment where he faces Bobby squarely near the end. Curran uses Chess to prove the point that repetition is funny: How else is it possible that by intermission, we’re laughing every time Chess says “My parents committed suicide”?
Some of that is timing, which is exquisite in a scene where documentary filmmaker Stan has crossed the line with Maya, and she snaps and lets him have it, with Bobby’s help. The interplay between the three is so sharp that the audience was cheering at the end of the scene the night I went.
Outside of campy romps like the work of Theater Rhino artistic director John Fisher, too much queer theater is neophytic and wooden, and yet it’s not judged by the same standard as regular theater because to do so would be politically incorrect, a situation the AIDS crisis did not help. In an effort to create noble characters, too many gay-themed plays do not yet let them be real. So audiences are forced to sit through earnest works with one-dimensional characters who are often sick, sarcastic, or some combination thereof and written solely to either move a plot or prove a point. Not so with Curran and director Jeffrey Hoffman, who give us characters bursting with quirks and qualities, rounded and juicy. Walking the Dead is a live one, and the funniest play about some deadly serious subjects imaginable.