By Ryan Pfeffer
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How do you deal with the loss of a loved one? Just when do you finally let it go? And, come to think of it, when you're finally making progress in that regard, getting on with your life and meeting new people, how do you tell if your new gay lover is just another male prostitute? These are the kinds of timeless questions examined with poetic angst and comic flair in writer/performer Bill Spring's sprightly stage memoir Miss Vanilla and the Hustler, now at ArtServe in Fort Lauderdale.
With a sensitive touch and a sardonic undertone, Spring retraces chapters of his life story in an impressive performance-art piece. The show is alternately heartfelt, humorous, and animated. One minute, the lanky, blond actor is reading a bittersweet ode to an ex; the next, he's doing "Hello, Dolly" down a staircase; then he's bouncing around on a mattress, re-creating his favorite sexual positions.
Bill is a Georgia native who, seeking to escape the prejudices of his home state, ended up in South Florida. It's a place, he says, where people come either to "reinvent themselves... or check out." Not sure which destiny applies to him, he spends his days feeling unfulfilled while working at a paper factory and pining for his late lover. The factory has an all-female staff, he says, with himself as "figuratively" the only male.
Bill's late soul mate left him with three things a bitter dose of disapproval from the boy's mother, a treasured gold watch, and the impossible task of having to say goodbye. So when Bill hooks up with a Brazilian-Italian stranger who rocks his world and his bedroom, it seems as if he has finally found something to help him recover his sense of purpose in the world.
Unfortunately, Bill discovers that the new beau's phone number matches an escort ad in the back pages of a local magazine. Bill understandably develops serious doubts about this new romantic interest. But what are we here for if not to enjoy the thrill of the moment? Realizing he's dating a stud for hire, Bill begins to let himself go and enjoy the kinky hookup; it's the most exciting thing he's done since the '80s, he says. (This is all spelled out in Spring's narrative, by the way, not with explicit sexual scenes.)
But then our hero starts to wonder: What exactly are the young man's true intentions? A friend advises him that maybe he's just being groomed as a future customer who, once he gets a taste of the goods, will be hooked. Bill even contemplates becoming a hustler himself, an enticing career move compared to his dead-end job. But when the stud asks Bill to give him the gold watch, the only material legacy from his dead lover, it's a reality check that seals the fate of the relationship. One good thing comes out of it, he says, wrapping up the tale with dubious clarity: The experience makes Bill conquer his fears and overcome his loss. Hmm.
Spring looks like a big kid onstage in his blue T-shirt and tan shorts, almost like a gay, grown-up version of Charlie Brown. It's easy to picture him resting his head on his elbows on top of that brick wall, pondering the mysteries of life along with his trusty sidekick, Prop Boy (a mute but mirthful Hernan Hernandez, whose constant presence yields amusing results). Like the cartoon character, Spring has plenty of footballs he can never quite kick. He lacks self-confidence, he's tied up in a thankless job, he's wrestling with a pre-midlife crisis. "Life is one big, bad report card," he laments.
In addition to Spring and Hernandez, there's another character in the play adding to the mischief. At a recent performance, producing director Jerry Waxman gamely filled in for actress Blair Eckhardt as a swami-like psychic prone to freestyle dancing and an occasional Jewish outburst. His reading of the Tarot cards was as hilarious as it was misguided.
Spring's script has plenty of pathos to offset the outrageous comedy bits. It also contains powerful poetry, the result, he says, of an exercise he did in which he wrote one poem a day for a year. Both the verbal imagery and their presentation recited while moving lights play across his face are particularly effective. Like any gay-themed play, Miss Vanilla will attract a largely male audience which is unfortunate, for the play addresses some universal themes.
Director Michael Yawney expertly adjusts the mood throughout the evening to keep up with the eclectic piece. The show originated at the Miami Light Project and played New York and is now being billed as a "more complete, fully mature play." Yawney obviously had a positive influence on Spring's reshaping of the work.
The creative team also uses the performance space at ArtServe to its best advantage. Set designer Mitchell Drake literally takes the pages of Spring's poetry and strings them up as a makeshift wall. David J. Hernandez cleverly uses shadows, colored gels, and even flashlights in the face as lighting techniques. The presentation also includes a stirring piano selection, passionately performed by Spring himself, proving that years of difficult piano lessons (and difficult life lessons as well) finally paid off.