Genders Bend in Unique, Gay-themed 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

Ferndale's Slipstream Theatre Initiative Presents Fairies, Nudity and More for Gay Pride

By Donald V. Calamia

Two couples walk into a bar. Yes, that's a familiar opening to many a tale, but when the couples are Hermia and Lysander and Helena and Demetrius, and the bar is a gay nightclub with Puck as the shot boy, then Slipstream Theatre Initiative's upcoming production of William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" will surely become one of the major highlights of this year's Pride celebrations beginning June 18 in Ferndale.

"(It's) been done every way under the sun," said director Luna Alexander of the Bard's classic comedy, "and so we decided why not have an absolute blast with the magic, and with the fairies, and with the lover's stories, and put it in a gay bar? What more magical night could you possibly ever hope for?"

How about one in which all of the roles are played by men? True, bent genders have been a trademark of Slipstream's since its founding in 2014, but here's yet another delightful twist. "(The) guys are playing guys the whole time," Alexander said.

In other words, the couples are anything but straight.

It's a concept Slipstream's cofounder and artistic director Bailey Boudreau easily justifies. "Because they're at a gay bar, if (Hermia and Helena) were played as females, it wouldn't make much sense. I don't know, these two random straight couples wander into the bar ... it just gets weird."

In fact, only one character in the play is straight. And wouldn't you know it: It's Bottom, a frat boy with a penchant for being a bottom.

Although such a concept isn't part of the original text, Shakespeare's oft-produced comedy is filled with fairies, magic potions, romantic entanglements and what Alexander calls "a cat fight" between Hermia and Helena. But how do you transform an ancient, five-act script with nearly two-dozen roles into a contemporary, 90-minute romp with only nine actors?

"There's going to be some trimming," Alexander explained. "There's some stuff that we really don't need." And because it is a smaller cast, a couple of actors will double up. "But a good share of the meat is going to be there. Which is lucky for us, because 'Midsummer' is one of (Shakespeare's) shorter (plays), so we're not going to be messing with it too much."

Add a creative reimagining to the mix, and the result is a new adaptation in which two sets of hapless lovers enter the only gay bar in the neighborhood of Athens, Ohio, where -- according to the show's press release -- "they learn about self-identity, the fickleness of love and the power of dance to emerge unscathed and truer to themselves the next day."

All with the help of Titania, the bar's star drag queen, of course. "She's the Nikki Stevens of the club," Alexander said, referencing the long-time headliner at Gigi's in Detroit. "Oberon is the owner of the entire establishment. They have a lovely feud that's always going on, and (it) changes from night to night."

One other thing will change nightly, as well. "Let's just say there's some audience participation," Boudreau teased.

"Nothing too nuts," Alexander added, "but people will have fun."

And then there's the nudity.

Actors Let It All Hang Out

For a play with mostly gay male characters set inside a gay dance club that's scheduled to run concurrent with Pride events in Metro Detroit -- and including partial and possibly full nudity (you'll have to see the show yourself to find out which) -- one might expect to find mostly gay actors on the Slipstream stage.

That won't be the case, however, as six of the nine men identify as straight. And several of the cast have never bared all in front of a paying audience -- especially one that will likely consist of many gay men eager to check them out.

So one can't help but wonder which is scarier: performing in a Shakespeare play, or appearing naked on stage in front of friends and strangers?

"Shakespeare," said Patrick Flanagan, who plays Titania, "because there's a lot to it, you know what I mean? There's so many different ways to say even one word. There's so many different ways to interpret one word. Then put that in the context of a character in a situation, in a scene. We always can just take our clothes off and disconnect from the reality of being looked at by the people. Creating something as professional as Shakespeare, for me personally, I always found to be a challenge."

Brenton Herwat, who tackles the role of Demetrius --- and whose muscular frame and dangling appendage have become familiar to Ferndale-area theatergoers -- agrees. "I'm definitely comfortable with being naked, but Shakespeare -- I am so little trained in that. I don't have to worry about my 'hang down' mixing up the language, so that's much easier than trying to figure out what I've got to say," he laughed.

Also in agreement is Boudreau, who plays Hermia. "I would say Shakespeare, also, not because I've been nude so often, but because people aren't going to outwardly judge your nudity. They are going to outwardly judge how you did your Shakespeare. There's going to be a public conversation and perception of what your Shakespeare was, not what your ball sac looked like."

Artun Kircali, however, has a somewhat different perspective. "Getting naked is scarier for me just because -- I don't know if it's just me -- but I always had issues with worrying what other people thought," he said. "It's not that I'm worried if someone's going to care what my dick looks like or what my hair looks like or something like that."

Instead, he continued, "People might start coming up with really untrue and strange reasons for why you are naked. Why did he take the part? Is he some sort of exhibitionist? Is he really proud of himself? Does he have some sort of god complex about himself?"

There's more to his apprehension, however; there's a cultural component to it, as well. "I don't know if it's because my family's from a different country, but that's something. I get that paranoid, random thought from just the stuff I've heard my family say."

That's not to say Kircali, as Lysander, finds performing Shakespeare easy. "Societally, getting naked is scary; intellectually, Shakespeare is infinitely scarier," he said.

For Miles Bond -- who is perfectly cast as Puck the shot boy -- body image is a major concern. "I guess it's partially a self-confidence thing," he noted. "I'm not saying I have like very low self-confidence, because doing theater as much as I have for the past few years, I've gotten a lot more confident in myself. Just as far as my body goes, there are still parts of me I would like to change -- that I'm still working on and not too proud about. Just sharing myself -- and that much of myself with just a bunch of people -- the thought of it sounds terrifying. But that's what they say about theater and moving on in life: If it scares you, that's like the biggest reason that you should do it."

Does it bother the actors that patrons may show up simply for the nudity? Or that they may be objectified by some of the men -- and also the women -- in the audience?

"Everybody has a different reason for coming to see a show," explained the theater's heart throb, Steve Xander Carson, who portrays the whiny (and tall) Helena. "They're going to see whatever they're going to come to look for. You may or may not ever have to see that person again, so it doesn't really make that much of a difference."

Kircali is fine with it, as well. "I say good if they want to give us $12 and just look at my dick. If they don't come for the Shakespeare, they better dig in and try and learn what the hell I'm saying, or they're going to be lost for 10 minutes and (have) a shitty time for the next 45," he laughed.

Ever the producer, Boudreau takes a realistic approach to the question. "We know that there are people coming to see it just because of the nudity, so we're going to show (them) some nakedness."

More philosophical, however, is Flanagan. "I was at the DIA today, and I saw lots of paintings and photographs of nude women and men, and I was marveling at the human form because it is a beautiful thing. There's nothing wrong with engaging yourself in the physique of a fellow human and appreciating it aesthetically or sexually or some combination of both."

Ironically enough, a recent photo shoot with the cast proved how society's views of nudity still impact even the most enlightened of young actors. Although a handful had just met the others for the first time, the group expressed a level of comfort with one another that would lead one to expect little or no hesitation on their part to strip naked in front of each other. When prompted to do so by photographer Trever Bennett, however, only Boudreau doffed his skivvies; the rest chose not to.

Why? The answer can likely be found in something Herwat -- a veteran of stage nudity -- said earlier that evening. "That stigma of being naked in front of people -- it was so scary at first. You're comfortable when you're one on one with somebody. The idea of doing it in front of a whole bunch of people you don't know for whatever reasons you're doing it for, whether it be theater or not, is scary. That first time it was really unnerving; for that (first) three seconds you're like, 'Oh my God, I'm naked in front of all these people!' Then you get that next line and you're back in the show and you forget about what you're doing; it takes you right back to that moment."

Later, after the main photo shoot was finished, individual shots were taken, and more actors joined Boudreau in the buff, reflecting a thought Flanagan expressed earlier. "It's that Puritan residue from so many centuries back that still clings with us," he said. And he is indeed correct.

Several weeks later, the jitters are mostly gone, and opening night looms in the not-too-distant future. When asked earlier why people should come see Slipstream's unique version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the quiet, but handsome, Kircali summed it up best. "It's Shakespeare at a gay bar. Hopefully the intrigue (would) set in."

PREVIEW:

'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

Slipstream Theatre Initiative

460 Hilton Road, Ferndale

313-986-9156

http://www.slipstreamti.com

$12 in advance only

8 p.m. Saturday, June 18, 25, July 2, 9

7 p.m. Sunday, June 19, 26, July 3, 10

7 p.m. Monday, June 20, 27

8 p.m. Thursday, July 7

8 p.m. Friday, July 8

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