Love! Valour! Courage?

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premise the playwright creates a sort of bucolic, granola-age Boys in the Band, where internalized homophobia has been superseded by AIDS and bitchiness tempered with a warmer wit.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.

"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

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."

The remaining unknown for Lockwood and Cook is LVC's box office prospects. While acknowledging the show's built-in, target gay audience, Lockwood is utterly confident about the show's crossover potential. "It has an immediate, mass-market appeal for those people who are interested in Tony Award-winning Broadway shows," he says. "And it won all those awards not because it's about gay men, but because it's about humanity, and that's universal.

"I look at its strengths," he continues, "not its content. It's no more of a liability than any other show in our season. It's just one piece of a six-piece puzzle. If we were to worry about whether or not to do LVC, we'd also have to say, 'I don't know if we should do The Fantasticks because it's got a rape-ballet, or Harvey because it's about an alcoholic.'"

Timothy Lee, head of the local GLBT theater company Outward Spiral, is less sure of LVC's mainstream potential. "Park Square audiences are a little more accustomed to the classics," says Lee, who is moonlighting as Cook's assistant on the LVC production, "and a lot of them come from St. Paul, which is traditionally a little conservative. So this show could be controversial."

"You can never predict a Twin Cities audience," Lee adds. It's his experience at Outward Spiral that "the gay audience in particular, though very well educated, is also pickier and less forgiving." He cites the relatively low box office receipts of Illusion Theater's recent, gay-themed double bill of "Hey, Boy!" and "Forever Hold Your Piece." On the other hand, Theatre in the Round scored a critical and financial bullseye with its 1996 staging of Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey. But unlike the home-grown Illusion shows, both Jeffrey and LVC are proven stage successes that have been converted into Hollywood films.

Still, Park Square's management believes the play's universal themes will broaden its appeal -- as well as the theater's audience base. "We're not looking for homogenous, single groups" of patrons, Cook says. "As the theater evolves, we're constantly trying to build our audiences."

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