March 17, 2005.By John Townsend, Lavender.
Conventional wisdom tells us entertainment that’s smart, sophisticated, deep, and done on a small scale never will hit. But for 11 years, Theater Latté Da has defied that maxim with some of the most consistently rich and lovely musical-theater fare you’ll see anywhere. And that means anywhere.
Latté Da has taken what can be the safest and least confrontational of theatrical genres—the musical—and turned it on its head, often selling tickets hand over fist. Hollywood could take a lesson.
In an era when queer theater seems to be struggling to redefine itself and just survive, Latté Da seamlessly integrates queer themes, concepts, and characters, while simultaneously appealing to a mainstream audience with lots of nonqueer material.
We’re not talking about tokenism, but shows that pack a punch: Terrence McNally’s A Man of No Importance, or queer-sensitive numbers included in Latté Da’s very first show in 1994, Coffee in a Cardboard Cup.
This is a company interested in shifting our idea if what we think theater itself actually is.
Co-Founding Artistic Director Peter Rothstein says he likes the notion of “disrupting the narrative, while moving the narrative forward.”
For instance, Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George has no queer themes per se. But visually, the ensemble must “become” the painted images of Georges Seurat on stage.
It’s an edge, however, that doesn’t try to jolt you for its own sake, like so much pop-culture drivel nowadays.
Rather, it comes from a stated philosophy that asks: What stories need to be told at this time? In this community? What voices need to be heard? How can theater artists create for an audience new ways of looking at something? And how might an existing work be reimagined?
An example: Latté Da’s current intimate treatment of the traditional grand opera La Bohème. It’s moving and exquisite.
Rothstein has reset Giacomo Puccini’s original 1840s Paris milieu a century later to the onset od the Nazi occupation.
The opera’s angry viewpoints on poverty and struggling artists are still intact, if not enhanced. Its view of possessive versus unconditional love, ahead of its time to begin with, comes through clearly.
And the war theme resonates painfully, as our own soldiers are picked off by Iraqi insurgents. It’s a subdued, rather than an overt, political message, saying much about the way war degrades the romantic and artistic spirit.
Latté Da’s 1997 production of William Finn’s Falsettos, with its themes of gay male love threatened by AIDS, comes to mind. However, Co-Founding Music Director Denise Prosek sees a silver lining: “We are all reminded of the people who play the most important roles in our lives, and are given the task to appreciate and love them with all out passion while they are still here.”
Tod Petersen’s devastating portrait of A Man of No Importance, who at midlife faces the sadness of unrequited homosexual love in parochial 1960s Dublin, was a transformational performance in a production that looked as if it were an extension of a Magritte painting. It’s a hallmark in Latté Da history.
And who could forget the Kander and Ebb song “Dear One” from Kiss of the Spider Woman (another McNally piece) included in Coffee in a Cardboard Cup?
Prosek reflects that each character “is lamenting the loss of a specific relationship with another person in the quartet, unaware that their loss is shared by all the others. The four characters are experiencing changes in their relationships that they don’t want to see.
“’I do nicely without you.’ ‘I don’t miss you inside me.’ ‘All my anger is fading.’ And then all together, ‘Say that over and over, keep repeating it, and you’ll believe the lie.’
“By repeating it to themselves that they’re not hurt—especially by singing in the ‘third person’—they don’t have to see the changes, or change their perceptions of the world around them.”
But don’t think that Latté Da’s vision is all gloom and angst. It can be outrageously festive.
Rob Hartmann’s hilarious Poodle Rescue was part of Latté Da’s 2002 New York Musical Shorts. A gay breakup means someone must part with the couple’s pooch.
Two years earlier, Oh S#!%, I’m Turning Into My Mother dared to broach the possibility that gay men might resemble their moms more than we’d like to admit. Conceived by Rothstein, new and existing music was juxtaposed with autobiographical reflections from Tod Petersen.
Petersen’s life also has been mined for what has become, over the past five years, a new Twin Cities holiday tradition: A Christmas Carole Petersen. It’s estimated that more than 80 percent of the audience in attendance is straight, and some are on record for seeing it three times a run.
Rothstein remarks, “You either believe in Santa Claus, or you become Santa Claus. What happens when there is no one to be Santa Claus for?
“What happens to that human need for make-believe, for family, for tradition? As child-less gay men, what happens to the need to leave something behind, to leave a legacy?”
Perhaps it’s great art and innovation. And Latté Da’s legacy assures that.
Coming up is King of Hearts, based on the French film about inmates who escape from an insane asylum during World War I.
What’s remarkable is that it’s a coproduction with Interact Theater, the region’s flagship theater for citizens with disabilities.
Rothstein calls it “disability-blind casting,” explaining, “Actors with disabilities will be playing nondisabled characters, and vice versa—hopefully, throwing into question our preconceived notions of the disabled.”
Next year, look for a trilogy of one-act musicals done with aerial acrobatics. The central metaphor will be flight.
Surely, few theaters can compare to Latté Da’s audaciousness and willingness to go where angels fear to tread.
La Bohème Runs through April 3 Loring Playhouse 1633 Hennepin Ave., Mpls. (612) 343-3390 <www.latteda.org>