The attention-grabbing title is taken from an original song by Amanda Yesnowitz, which Rothman first heard while attending a showcase of NYU musical theater students. "Everybody sitting near me asked, 'Does she know you?' and I was like, 'No, but she will.' So, I got her to give me the song. One of the lines is 'I love you, so you're probably gay / We can still be friends, maybe see a matinee.' I have it as my opening number and it sets up the entire evening."
Other tunes used in the show include ABBA's "Take a Chance on Me," "No Man Left For Me" from The Will Rogers Follies (with revised lyrics), and "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Bonnie Raitt. Rothman shares the stage with accompanist Charles Ebersole, two male singers, and a drummer; interspersed with the songs are humorous and sometimes poignant tales from Rothman's life.
"I should have been born a gay boy because I loved musicals and ABBA and The Wizard of Oz and Bette Midler," says Rothman. "The show deals with all the things that happen when you're dating gay men: how do they tell you, what do you say to the person, and all that mess. It's completely autobiographical, no matter how sad that may be."
The show has added resonance for local audiences because Rothman grew up in Cleveland. "For a couple of stories, I use first names and I've heard the audience snickering," says the performer. "The first time that happened, I said: 'I've just realized that some of you probably know who I'm talking about!'"
The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World takes place almost entirely in the dark.
"We're doing the first three or four minutes in the light, to set up the visual atmosphere," says director J.V. Mercanti. "We're going to do something funky when we introduce Julia and then go to black." The rest of the production depends upon (1) actors creating sound environments and delivering playwright Shaun Prendergast's text, (2) the work of sound designer John Moros, and (3) misters that the company sprays to create different smells. For those worried that the sensory experience extends to touch as well, Mercanti assures that there will be no actors crawling amongst the audience. "I think that would be too scary for everyone involved," he says.
Mercanti was the resident director of the national tour of the musical Cabaret; he comes to this production at Fort Worth's TCU Studio Theater after working as the assistant director of the recent Broadway revival of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. He's also served as assistant director of the national tour of Chicago and other high-profile projects. "Thank God I worked on musicals because it's been amazingly helpful," Mercanti says. "Everything needs to be timed correctly, as we'll just be hearing voices and sounds. The lines have a certain rhythm and you have to play them with some sense of poetry. Some of it even seems like it should be sung."
As the show's full title implies, it's based on the true story of a 19th-century Mexican peasant who was exploited by an American showman as a circus freak. "I think everyone can relate to Julia," says Mercanti. "I'm not four-and-a-half feet tall and covered with hair and called the ugliest woman in the world, but I've certainly felt ugly and left out and felt like there was a world going on outside of me that I wasn't a part of. I was either holding myself back or had someone holding me back, but I wanted to live. And I think that's all Julia wants."
Over the course of the play, Scott comes to terms with his fears, aided in part by a portrait of the school's founder that talks to him. "The play is very much grounded in realism for the other characters but this is a way inside Scott's mind," says Espey. "I think that's the way it has to be because the play is very much about somebody who doesn't want people to know what's going on in his head, so there have to be these little devices that clue the audience in."
Espey teaches middle school life science, and the play is partly inspired by his experiences working in a school setting. However, he cautions that Fifty/Fifty may not be suitable for his students: "It's kind of an adult play. It has mature themes in it that aren't necessarily appropriate for eighth graders."
Fifty/Fifty is the second of Espey's works to be produced by the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, and the author seems to have learned some important lessons since his initial foray with the company. "When I had my first play produced, I really didn't know anything about the process and I stayed away more than I should have," he says. "This experience has been the best that I've had as a writer because I've worked so closely with the director and communicated with him during the development of the piece. I wish I had known to do that before; it has made a big, big difference in this particular project."
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