Love! Valour! Courage?

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

"It became this joke to us," Cook, 49, says, "the token empty second bedroom. There was never a bed in there, and no furniture."

"It was 1972 or '73," Lockwood chimes in, "and down there they were just about entering 1950. And that wasn't even the Deep South."

The upshot of this saga of creeping, don't-ask-don't-tell discrimination was Cook's dismissal. He protested, but declined to stick around and fight the decision or take it to the higher courts. "It was an adventure that tested our relationship, that's for sure," he says. The experience also helped to form resolve. "When I became head of Park Square," he says, "I swore I'd never put anybody in that kind of situation, or allow another artist to be compromised that way."

Leaving Raleigh, Cook and Lockwood eventually migrated to the Twin Cities. They became, according to Cook, "disco-babies" who did a lot of volunteer work, partly as a means of exploring what the gay community had to offer. Home was a two-bedroom apartment in Kellogg Square shared with Lockwood's mother, Bessie. "She was a very interesting woman," he says, "always independent, a world traveler. It was more like living with a peer than a parent. It could be kind of amusing. There was a while there that she was carrying on a torrid affair. She would ask, 'Are you gonna be late tonight?' I'd say, 'Why?' 'Well, so-and-so is coming over....'"

The arrangement lasted 18 years, until Bessie's death in 1996. During that time Cook juggled direction, design, and fund-raising duties at Park Square, as Lockwood gradually slid out of direction and performing to focus on acquiring business expertise. (Bessie and her lady friends helped stuff envelopes.) Together with scores of actors, designers, and other directors, they guided the nonprofit toward what is fast approaching 150 productions mounted in at least four locations. Park Square even managed to survive one year without a permanent venue.

"It was like they had to reinvent the wheel with every show," remarks the theater's current dramaturg and occasional actor, Matt Sciple.

"Twin Cities theater history is littered with corpses," says actor Craig Johnson, a veteran of some 40 Park Square productions, "but Stephen and Richard have been the glue holding that whole place together through thick and thin."

The payoff to the pair's cultured, savvy dedication to Park Square is its increasing prestige as one of the Twin Cities' Little Theaters That Could. In Johnson's estimation, the theater has become "a main
middle-level institution." Things only improved when the theater moved into downtown's handsome, historic Hamm Building, erstwhile home of the defunct Actors Theater of St. Paul, in 1995. Over the last few seasons, both the theater's subscription base and audience attendance have more or less doubled. This with only six full-time employees and some part-time help.

Bringing more gay theatergoers into the fold could further boost such success. The cast list for LVC reads like a miniature who's who of TwinTown's gay male thespians: Joey Babay, Robert-Bruce Brake, Dale Pfeilsticker, Jonathan Rayson, Peter Rothstein, and Peter Vitale.

McNally's creations include a choreographer and his blind, angelic younger lover; an endearing showtune queen with AIDS; and a good/bad pair of English-born twins (played by one actor). Accompanying the "evil" twin is a dancer, a Latino stud muffin named Ramon.

"The miracle of this play," Cook explains to the actors during the late-November rehearsal, "is the interaction of the characters, which is you. I'm really pleased with the talent here. But, "

Finding a living match for this role has proven to be more of a bane to Cook's production than even the on-stage lake suggested by the script. Early on in the casting, Cook opened wide the door to actors of every color. "The more we've talked about it," Cook says, "the more important it's become to me to make sure that Ramon is a true outsider to the fabric of the group. Literally, he's a darker
personality."

You wouldn't think that finding a good, hunky -- and affordable -- young actor who is also convincing as a professional dancer would be that difficult, even in white-bread Minnesota. Still, despite consultations with Mixed Blood, Penumbra, Theatre Mu, Teatro del Pueblo, and cabaret impresario Patrick Scully, among others, the right Ramon has eluded Park Square. Even the likeliest lead -- an Equity actor who played the part for nearly six months in Chicago -- fell through.

"So," Cook reiterates, "we're still Ramoning. It's a gerund."

Ramon's anatomy isn't the only body that figures prominently in LVC. The show's biggest technical challenge is an on-stage body of water -- a lake, in fact -- in which the characters should appear to swim.

Backlund, who has previously devised on-stage showers and rain curtains for Park Square, reports that other productions of LVC have utilized a narrow lap pool and even a tub of water stuck behind a transparent screen. He's being far more ambitious. He reckons that his "lake" will measure three feet at its deepest. It will be heated, he says, mischievously adding, "but I have a feeling it won't be all that warm. The actors' balls might literally freeze off."

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