"The All-American Genderfuck Cabaret" at Empire Stage: Sometimes Even a God Has to Come Down and Make Out With Someone
The characters in Thinking Cap Theatre's All-American Genderfuck Cabaret discuss and engage in many a godforsaken activity over the play's two-plus hours. So it's a good thing they have their own omnipotent, omnipresent god who intervenes in their lives and doesn't care what they do with their genitalia as long as they're happy. This god appears in the form of Taylor (Noah Levine), a lanky transsexual of indeterminate gender, who acts as the show's "emcee." He/she introduces the characters like models on a runway and proceeds to offer insights into their lives, from their personalities and their television viewing habits to their most-urgent problems and, most important, their sex lives (or lack thereof). Taylor is always hanging around, and if he/she occasionally breaks the metaphysical barrier to make out with one of these people, well, that's OK too — even enlightened, gender-neutral deities have needs.
Levine's Taylor is a special performance. He plays the part with elastic comic timing and effortless, scene-stealing confidence that belies the fingernail-extension flamboyancy and emotional confusion that have too often defined transvestism in popular culture. Of all the characters sharing the stage, he/she is the most stable.
But the show isn't really about Taylor — it's about the carnival of motley, sexually frustrated and identity-questioning men and women he oversees. There's Devon (Christina Jolie Breza), a secretly gorgeous badass who has taken to masculine endeavors such as personal training after two and a half sexless years. Allegra (Desiree Mora) has been having sex, but not enjoying it, with her dirtbag boyfriend Adrian (James Carrey), a cocky type-A who screws anything that moves. Benji (Arturo Sierra) is a generous lover but an ineffectual personality whom the world assumes is gay. Gwen (Andrea Bovino) is ostensibly Benji's girlfriend, but her vagina is open to all interested parties. Dick (Danny Nieves) is a braggart with a sentimental side who frequently lies about his virginity. Kate (Nori Tecosky) is the token man-hating lesbian in superfluous hipster spectacles, and DJ (Andy Herrman) is the token gay hairdresser/sassy best friend to the show's needy women.
If all of these romantic comedy archetypes seem a tad familiar — Slut, Bro, Nice Guy, Tomboy, Feminazi, Queen, etc. — that's the point. Playwright Mariah McCarthy, who borrowed the name "genderfuck" from a 1970s theater movement that challenged gender stereotypes, set out to create stereotypical characters that fit into neat little packages and, for the first act of this play, live up to our expectations of them. The second act is another story, and it's where McCarthy's genderfuck comes into play, breaking through the characters' superficial surfaces to probe the complex, three-dimensional people underneath. There are role reversals and surprising character revelations, affecting conversations and poignant farewells. There's a particularly moving he-said, she-said account of a semiconsensual rape and how it affected both parties that wallows in the expansive gray area between right and wrong, yes and no. The scenes are extraordinarily acted by Carrey and Breza, who elevate these segments from isolated pieces of a narrative patchwork to this play's very heart and soul, representing everything McCarthy was shooting for. It's all the better for not demonizing anyone; both characters are excruciatingly real and hopelessly misunderstood.
Not all of the characters' transformations coalesce so perfectly. Dick's sudden embrace of genuineness feels forced and underdeveloped, and the pairing of two other characters destined to be together has the tidy inevitability associated with frothy Broadway musicals, not edgy explorations of gender identity. McCarthy's second act, while throwing its share of change-ups, could have benefited from a messier, less schematic approach.
In fact, with a lesser cast, The All-American Genderfuck Cabaret might have come off as didactic hokum dressed in provocative clothing. But this ensemble sells the material with natural humor and tender conviction. There may not be a standout (save for Levine's emcee), but there is not a weak link, either. Everyone fits like puzzle pieces into director Nicole Stodard's vision of McCarthy's tapestry of American youth, playing off each other's infectious energy.
Their charms easily spread to the audience, in a production full of endearing touches and tonal shifts. Stodard's treatment is a genrefuck as much as a genderfuck, beginning as comedy and dovetailing into tragedy, suspense — a disturbing confrontation outside a nightclub between Nieves' Dick and Herrman's DJ bristles with tension — and even musical. The play's "soundscape," credited to Stodard and technical director David Hart, includes spontaneous, choreographed dance numbers to Beyoncé and Arcade Fire tunes. The nightclub scene, set during a '90s night, features a montage of nostalgic song excerpts ranging from Sir Mix-a-Lot to Radiohead, cleverly tailored to each character. Creating the drama and ambiance that is absent from Chastity Collins' no-budget set design, Nate Sykes' lighting design enhances a hellish nightmare sequence and another character's elaborate, circusy fantasy. There is a lot going on in this production in its second act, where it finally lives up to the cabaret concept offered in the title.
At its best — and this is a very good production of it — The All-American Genderfuck Cabaret breaks apart what Taylor refers to as the binaries that divide us — black and white, Democrat and Republican, us and them — while asserting that gender has no place in these polarities. Tellingly, Taylor opens and closes the play absorbed in a copy of Pride and Prejudice, whose title is its own unfortunate binary. The latter may always be an impediment to the former, but plays like this one help widen the gap.
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