Are you a man who wants to get in touch with your inner woman? Have you considered trying to accomplish that goal by staging a French Revolution-era farce and donating the proceeds to a toy fund for needy children? No? Why not? Well, the idea apparently made sense in the kink-closeted culture of small-town Minnesota, circa 1927. And if you can go along with that concept, you're game for the silly-sweet abstractions of Jordan Harrison's Act a Lady.
Having dispensed with the let's-put-on-a-show plot mechanics about a minute into the proceedings, what follows is the twist: The village menfolk will play the ladies' parts as well as the gents'. The town's tanner, shopkeeper, and photographer lay down the tools of their trades, in other words, and replace them with scented handkerchiefs and unmentionables (you couldn't mention them then, anyway, but let's say it: lingerie). What's more, in the early going the guys seem titillated (albeit stoically) by the prospect.
A play-within-a-play conceit follows, with Countess Roquefort (Brian Goranson, also the tanner True) trading barbs and romantic betrayals with Romala Von Plofsdorf (Fred Wagner, the grocer Miles when not in drag). The demure maid Greta (Nathan Christopher, doubling as shutterbug Casper) looks on, dusting the windows while plotting machinations of her own.
Director Peter Rothstein keeps the action closer to Main Street than to amateur night at the Gay 90's. Wagner, a big guy with expressive features, rolls his eyes as if he were struck by the vapors, and Goranson spends stretches of the first act sporting a wig that seems liable to leap off his head and attack someone in the front row. Wake a Rotarian from his customary slumber and he'll plunge himself with vigor into what we know today as "an alternative lifestyle." Even if it's for a good cause, the menfolk may be exhibiting a bit too much vigor, or so argues Miles's wife, Dorothy. (Greta Gosch manhandles the part with a matronly skepticism and an accent as broad as Mille Lacs.)
Though transvestites are usually straight—ask Mrs. Doubfire!—Casper is the exception. He becomes entirely smitten with True, who only has eyes only for comely makeup artist Lorna (Angie Haigh). The gay subtext of the story generally eludes everyone, save for director Zina (Suzanne Warmanen), who takes Casper aside and delivers a lecture on the wider world and his better prospects in it should he find the courage to leave the sticks.
A makeup artist? A director from the outside world? Jeez, that's a hell of a budget for community theater. As you may have gleaned, Harrison doesn't shy from inserting elements of the fantastic, and by the second act things have gone into the realm of the conceptual. The play within the play begins to bleed over into real life, as our boys lose themselves completely within their characters. Christopher lightens this stretch with a hilariously hysterical Greta; Wagner's transformation into an undead hag is another highlight.
But it doesn't stop there. Soon the female actresses assume the male roles, and romantic couples exchange identities entirely. There's a setback when Dorothy betrays the company to protest the godlessness of it all. But then every show about a show needs to have a subplot about someone trying to bring down the curtains. It's folksy! It's cliché! It's transgressive! By this point Harrison's show seems in danger of crawling up its own, well, aspirations.
It doesn't happen, though, as the actors refuse to stray too far into this Midwestern night's dream, lest they lose the goodwill of the audience along the way. Finally, Grosch takes the stage with an accordion to deliver a weird, endearing song about the facets of ourselves that we hide from one another, no matter how much they might be allowed to shine if they were revealed. It is an apt conclusion to a work about the hidden corners of our selves, and how much our identities bleed over into those of our loved ones.
Or, if you like, you can simply enjoy the sight of a middle-aged man in zombie drag hissing at the audience. It goes both ways.