Love! Valour! Courage?

Park Square players: Executive director Stephen Lockwood and artistic director Richard Cook.

It's a Monday evening in late November, and a veritable orgy of gifted men are ranged round a patchwork of tables in the basement of downtown St. Paul's Park Square Theatre. The air is charged with expectancy. Rehearsals for the area premiere of Love! Valour! Compassion!(henceforth known as LVC), Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning play about male queerdom in the mid-'90s, are about to commence.

Everyone seems to be in a talkative mood. "We'll have real characters in a very abstract space," the theater's resident designer, Gabriel Backlund, says to the assembled cast and crew. "And very, very few props. Thank God."

"And very, very few clothes," pipes up costumer Jack Edwards. "Thank God!" His lecherous tone stems from the fact that these actors will bare more than just their souls on-stage.

But the real men who could lose their shirts in this enterprise, financially speaking, are Park Square artistic director Richard Cook and his partner in life and work, Stephen Lockwood, the theater's executive director. As the opening act in the theater's six-play 1998 season, LVC is something of a bold and risky venture.

"There's an edge to this choice," Cook says, acknowledging the show's gay content, "If there's been an imbalance in our programming, it's been toward the conservative."

McNally's play is set at a comfy country house in upstate New York, a haven for eight arty, upscale gay men during three summer holidays. From this premise the playwright creates a sort of bucolic, granola-age Boys in the Band, where internalized homophobia has been superseded by AIDS and bitchiness tempered with a warmer wit. Done well, the result is a work both heartfelt and hilarious.

The script, not incidentally, presents the male physique as a vehicle for passion, disease, and spirituality. Park Square is being careful about this and the show's other potentially touchy elements. All promotional material cautions that "the play contains nudity, strong language, and sexual situations." For some of the public -- including the more staid members of Park Square's subscription audience who were offended by the homosexual kiss that kicked off last summer's staging of Fifth of July -- such explicit, dicks-in-the-breeze content could be a deterrent. For others -- particularly the hipper, GLBT culture-
vultures Cook hopes to attract to St. Paul -- it'll be an extra incentive.

"Park Square has a mainstream audience," Cook says, "though I like to think of them as pretty cool and sophisticated. But we haven't put a gay play in front of them before. This show is a chance to expand their repertoire. It's also a chance for us to reach out to the gay community." (Ten percent of all single ticket sales for LVC, which runs Jan. 15 - Feb. 8, will be donated to the Minnesota AIDS Project for next year's AIDS Walk, and a special benefit performance for District 202 is scheduled for Feb. 12.)

That same community has long served as home for Cook and Lockwood. An Iowa farm boy, Cook met Wisconsin-born Lockwood while each was pursuing a directing degree from the University of Iowa at Iowa City in the early '70s. Despite their competitive and contrasting natures, the two aesthetic rivals clicked.

"We're tremendously tenacious," explains Lockwood, 51. "Our relationship has outlived every relationship we know, both straight and gay." And the secret of their longevity? "Richard's my best friend, better than anybody else. You can have lovers, but a real best friend will forgive, forget, excuse, whatever. And we love each other's company. You know you have a good relationship when you can spend a whole weekend together and not have to say a fuckin' word. We don't have to entertain each other."

Instead, Lockwood and Cook, 49, expend much of their joint energy entertaining Park Square audiences. They do this via a judiciously managed, typically widely varied repertoire. Solid, occasionally inspired productions of Western classics by Shakespeare, say, or Oscar Wilde are layered in among comforting, family-friendly chestnuts like Harvey (scheduled for June) and newer, riskier scripts that Cook says "might have a few more edges." These include last season's Arcadia, Tom Stoppard's bracing meditation on love and science, and the area premiere this spring of David Mamet's elliptical The Cryptogram. And, of course, there's LVC.

Although their association with Park Square stretches back to 1975, Cook and Lockwood have officially been at the theater's helm since 1979. Prior to that they made their living temping at Control Data Corporation and, even more lucratively, toiling for three years as union members in a steel pipe factory. "Stephen would cut pipe into little pieces," Cook recalls, "and I would put threads on it. There came a point where I knew I'd better get out because the job was becoming too comfortable. But it was nice to know we could do it."

Their most notorious pre-Park Square theatrical gig was Cook's appointment, fresh out of college, as scenic designer and technical director at a theater in Raleigh, N.C. Because his relationship with Lockwood was fairly new, Cook says, he "slightly fudged" his answers to personal questions during an interview with the theater's management, hoping they would feel "comfortable enough to offer me the job." Lockwood eventually joined Cook, volunteering his time backstage and living in the two-bedroom apartment that the theater insisted Cook rent.

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