Standing on Ceremony pushes the gay-marriage hot button

Opening a deep well of emotions: Shawn Hamilton (left) and Jim Lichtscheidl
Karen R. Nelson

Considering how much of a hot-button issue gay marriage is at the moment — both nationwide and here in Minnesota — it's certainly no surprise that artists are, more than ever, engaged with the matter. For the theater, it's an issue that is close to a lot of patrons and creators and opens a deep well of emotions.

Plenty of that is on display in Standing on Ceremony, which collects 11 short plays by a wide spectrum of playwrights. There's no spectrum of opinions, which is fine. This is an evening closer to agit-prop than documentary, but it does leave the playwrights, the company of six actors, and director Wendy Knox with a quandary: How do you make these similar viewpoints compelling over the course of an evening?

Each of the works brings a sense of drama in different degrees, while the actors and Knox do a solid job of making sure the evening moves from piece to piece, building somewhat to an emotional end. So there are funny pieces, and thoughtful, tragic, and heartbreaking ones as well. The show succeeds more often than not, but it still feels as if something has been missed.

Some of that feeling is built into the show's DNA. With 11 creators introducing new characters and situations every 10 minutes or so, the pacing is going to feel off. A few of the pieces work around that. Jeffrey Hatcher's "White Marriage," for example, starts as a mystery — who are these two characters and what are they describing? — and then unfolds from there. That extra hook, one that Hatcher often builds into his plays, makes for one of the most compelling parts of the show. The characters, we learn, are a husband and wife sharing their recollections of their long marriage — one forever shaded because he is gay.

That kind of playing with straight marriage also comes up in Joe Keenan's "This Marriage Is Saved," in which a conservative preacher rebuilds his ministry after being caught quite literally with his pants down. Keenan adds a needed layer of satire to poke holes in the usual conservative arguments against gay love, relationships, and marriage, while also building a portrait of a man who is going to do everything in his power to not admit his own nature.

The plays that bring the politics completely to the fore are some of the weakest, from Jordan Harrison's "The Revision" to Neil LaBute's "Strange Fruit" (featuring a very LaBute-like dark twist at the end) and especially from the usually strong Doug Wright, whose "On Facebook" is just painful to watch. The play essentially is a bunch of folks bickering about gay marriage on Facebook. It's the kind of conversation that's easy to skip when it comes up online, because the discussions, like this play, feature characters who not only don't see eye to eye but will barely acknowledge that the other person exists.

There is a lot of recounting of weddings and the relationships behind them in a number of the plays. This is fine once or twice, but by the end I started to have trouble keeping track of everyone in my head. That wasn't a problem in the evening's other high point, Moises Kaufman's "London Mosquitoes." Here, simplicity works. The narrator, Joe, is at his partner's funeral, remembering the nearly 50 years they lived and loved together in New York City, at first building a life in semi-secret but becoming more and more open, and more politicized, as AIDS and the gay rights movement took hold. The script and Mark Rhein's terrific performance bring both of these men to life.

The company does a generally solid job with all their characters. The performances are something of a hybrid between staged reading and fully fledged production, with some performers keeping scripts in hand while others do not. That may have led to some of the soft performances I saw opening night, as the actors sometimes seemed as concerned with the lines as with what the lines meant.

On balance, Standing on Ceremony works when the politics are left in the background — still there, but not our main focus, as in the sweet, moving closer, "Pablo & Andrew at the Altar of Words." In Jose Rivera's piece, two men share self-written vows that illustrate all that they love about each other. That's something theater can do that all the political statements, billboards, and bumper stickers can't: show us the powerful, beautiful, brilliant love at the heart of the issue.

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