We All Scream for Gay Theme

I know. Life is a struggle sometimes: You're faced with traffic gridlock, work overload, relationship limbo. But cheer up: At least you're not Baby Doll Gibbons. Not only is her on-again, off-again romance off again; her roommates are furious that she trashed their apartment in a fit of jealous pique. Oh, and a pack of nasty mobsters is putting the squeeze on her to give back some jewelry she stole from them. Gosh! What's a drag queen to do?

Baby Doll is the center of a minor theatrical storm making waves in Fort Lauderdale. This entertaining disturbance is a live gay soap opera called Victoria Place. Using a cross-cutting multiplot structure, Place follows Baby Doll's exploits and mishaps among an array of supporting characters. Ritchie, Baby Doll's ex-lover and current partner in a gay bar called the Torn Curtain, is a kindly, steady rock of a man, but his patience is sorely tried by Baby Doll's melodramatic excesses. So too is B.D.'s put-upon alcoholic roommate, Chase, who's furious when Baby Doll tries to break up Chase's budding romance with a new lover. Jimmy Giseppe, a mobster's son, is the tough guy who's after the jewelry, but he hides a secret past only Baby Doll knows about.

All of this comes together as a partly silly, partly scandalous production that teeters between camp and satire. Much of it is clever, some of it is amateurish, but all of it is cheeky, one of the most original theatrical creations South Florida has seen in some time.

Victoria Place is the work of a talented, determined dynamo, Robby Kendall, who has no formal theatrical training but offers a keen comedic sense and a wry, often-thoughtful perspective on human nature. Kendall, who wrote, directed, and produced his show, also stars as Baby Doll, a kinetic comedy creation who's a cross between Mae West and Pee Wee Herman. When she's not in full drag on-stage at the Torn Curtain, Baby Doll tends to wear tight red plaid suits and a gelled topknot. Kendall is balanced (if that's the right word) by Jude Parker's over-the-top performance as Dr. Celia Rosen, a man-hungry shrink who's weirder by far than any of her patients.

The story tends to revolve around these two lunatics and several other characters who act as straight men. (That's "straight" as in serious, not sexual orientation.) Baby Doll's sometime boyfriend Ritchie, a hunky, kindly type, is played with a natural ease by Brian Harman. Same goes for Dwayne C. Tuttle as Chase Ridgestone, the exasperated roommate. At times, neither seems on the same planet as Kendall and Rosen, as Victoria Place tends to oscillate -- no -- careen among theatrical styles. Sometimes the performances are going for something near realism. At other times, the show goes for a rude, crude vaudevillian humor. (References to the family candy business afford a wholly irrelevant and deplorably funny riff about fudge-packing.)

All of this anarchy is served in an uneven, loosey-goosey production. Some aspects are flat-out terrible; others are terrific: The lighting is execrable, while the costumes are witty. The sets are cleverly offbeat. The shrink's office has three clocks, all with different times, while the mob restaurant oddly bears iconic gay decorations -- it's hard to take bad-boy Jimmy at face value when he's got a huge Judy Garland photo on his wall. Some of the staging is lame, and while the arch dialogue is often clever, it calls for a performance pace and precision that's often not there. Stylistically, Kendall still hasn't found a balance among some heartfelt aspects, between ideas about gay/straight politics and the underpinnings of Baby Doll's bittersweet relationship with Ritchie, and some of the off-the-wall comedy.

Though the show is riddled with weaknesses, that doesn't diminish its inspired zaniness. Kendall's Baby Doll is a droll, dynamic creation, easily capable of driving a whole series of episodes. Some scenes are downright memorable, and Baby Doll's lip-synched musical numbers on-stage at the club are a delight. I won't give away the show's final gag, but if you ever wondered if anyone could top the hair-gel sequence from There's Something About Mary, be assured Kendall has done it.

Kendall began his show in an earlier installment (Episode One), at the Cathode Ray Bar in Fort Lauderdale, that followed the story in video sequences as well as on-stage scenes. This concept was dropped for the current production, Episode Two, but the story lines and character relationships carry on. A third episode is scheduled for October. All of this construction and production makes Victoria Place decidedly a work in progress. But there is little doubt that it has the potential for being a potent and popular local hit.

More stage notes: Victoria Place is not the only independent gay project in the works. The Nature of the Beach, a new gay drama, debuts September 12 at the Shores Performing Arts Theatre in Miami Shores. This project, directed by Broadway and music-industry veteran Richard Jay-Alexander, takes a look at a gay community through one South Beach season. A number of celebrities pepper the 14-character cast: Author David Leddick and the play's creator, David Sexton, headline, with former pro athlete Billy Bean in his stage debut.

It's significant that these projects are independent productions, not affiliated with ongoing resident theaters. (There's another new independent group, Creative Arts Enterprises, presenting an improv, interactive show called Jon & Juan's Wedding at the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens.) Gay-themed productions do not often turn up on local production slates, though there are some exceptions -- Fort Lauderdale's Public Theatre opens this season with Jeffrey, and Florida Stage opened last year's with Thief River. But given the significant gay population in South Florida and that group's hefty purchasing power, it's a mystery why gay theater has so little overall impact here.

The mystery appears to deepen when one considers the decided triumph of the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, which is not only one of the most successful arts events in the area but one of the best fests in the country. And with significant financial clout: When the festival is running in the spring, Lincoln Road restaurants are packed with moviegoers, both local and those coming into town for the event. Given the market for gay-themed entertainment, why doesn't South Florida have a major resident gay theater, or at least a gay theater festival?

The answer (which in principle can also apply to most of the South Florida arts scene) is simple: Such a company doesn't exist because no one has established it. When Robbie Rosenberg set out to create the Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, nothing like it existed here. Now, it's hard to imagine the film scene without it.

True, South Florida has its share of failed arts efforts, as does every community. But overall, this is not a place where institutions collapse but rather where they have yet to be built. That's the upside of living on a cultural frontier. There may be little here in the way of traditions and institutions, but there isn't much deadwood in the way. We can build what we want. It just takes three little words: vision, action, persistence.

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Ronald Mangravite