The gay liberation movement defined the closet as a suffocating, imprisoned space. But it can also be a protection and even a moment of liberation in moments of transition and danger.
At least last year we heard from Theater in Quarantine, the smallest East Village company that has been producing wonderful live work since April 2020 from the 4-foot-by-8-foot box in which Joshua William Gelb keeps his winter coats . In dozens of plays, performance pieces and amalgams of dance theater, Gelb and his staff have redefined spatial and security restrictions in order to establish a valuable new outpost of the avant-garde.
Refuge and transformation are the invigorating ideas behind the company’s latest offering: “Honestly Sincere”, a charming, nervous new piece by Liza Birkenmeier that not only flows out of a closet, but also plays in one. There, under her pink and gray tops, 13-year-old Greta Hemberger makes a series of calls on her mother’s cell phone that, in their intimacy and awkwardness, seem to capture all of early teenage girlhood in a breathless caress.
It’s only natural for Greta to retire to her closet; On the threshold of so many kinds of self-discovery, it is also something of a self-embarrassment. For example, she didn’t get the role she was looking for in the production of “Bye Bye Birdie” at her school – the role of Albert, that is, the male lead. But in her private Sweet Apple, she can appear to herself (and us) as if she had done it: played by yellow, in a gray suit and a striped tie, she even taps dances to “put on a happy face”.
And when she calls a friend known only as F (Remi Elberg), she can rehearse real-life characters as well. F won’t mock her for saying pretentious, possibly meaningless things like “I’m no longer a body animal, I’m just an effect”. She’ll just continue the conversation as if nothing more than a belch had interrupted it.
This is all very strange and enchanting, but Birkenmeier, whose great piece in full length “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House ”featured a similar ornate delicacy and wasted no time in a 30-minute sketch. Neither does Greta; With F she soon gets to the point, namely to get the phone number of Ethan Blum, a boy whom she would like to invite to a dance even though he has a quasi-girlfriend and is probably gay.
If your conversation with the adenoid Ethan (Alexander Bello) wasn’t so sweet and funny, you’d probably get annoyed on his behalf to find Greta really calling to talk to his older sister Sabel (Hailey Lynn Elberg) about the weakest to speak of excuses. She’s trying on a new personality now, a refined, gibberish-prone personality like “Hard work is deeply tragic and maybe even unfair,” while still thrilled with the opportunity to have a 17 year old help with her makeup, if not in their math.
All of this is so beautifully played, under the direction of Gelb and Katie Rose McLaughlin, that I forgot the characters other than Greta are disembodied voices on the other end of their phone. And even Greta is in some ways disembodied and guided by Yellow’s rather fearless 36-year-old cisgender manhood.
Whether Greta is cisgender or gay or something else is unclear – probably also for her; she is 13. But in “Honestly Sincere” (the title comes from another “Bye Bye Birdie” song), Birkenmeier is less interested in retaining identity than in the beautiful way a girl is safe in the comfort of her chosen one Raums (and) tracing sets out to discover it with the help of your chosen technology and friends.
That brings us back to the quarantined theater and its own space, its technology, and its friends. I was usually not a fan of the avant-garde, which too often sees me as intellectual and cool and is shod in a machismo musk. But these cabinet productions, strange as they may be, are almost always warmer, more pervasive, and more speculative in the exploration of gender than the works of the old-school male gurus.
It is important that so many of them – including Heather Christian’s “I Send You the Holy Face” and Madeleine George’s beautiful “Mute Swan” – were written by women. Your characters seem, even if they are embodied by a man, to be safe enough in the cozy closet to represent and thereby honor more than just themselves.
Quarantined on the YouTube page Theater in quarantine