Lori-Nan Engler and Kavita Goyal in Cynthia Cooper’s lesbian dramaStrange Lights at the Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival
Lori-Nan Engler and Kavita Goyal in Cynthia Cooper’s lesbian drama
Strange Lights at the Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival
An unusual sight greeted many of the patrons who filled the Arden Theatre Company's Arcadia Stage for the opening night of the First Annual Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival: On stage was LDQ, a youth improv group that performs in neighborhood schools to illustrate the many issues facing gay and lesbian teens. It was an appropriate opening to the festival in that these outreach programs are often the only gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender-themed work performed in the area. Besides the occasional production of The Laramie Project or Stop Kiss at one of the big regional houses, GLBT-themed theater in Philadelphia is generally non-existent. But now, finally, there is a festival for the city's most underserved theatergoers.

Featuring 13 productions (10 of which were either world or Philadelphia premieres) at eight venues from June 10 through 15, the festival made Philadelphia the temporary GLBT theater capital of the world. Perhaps the highest-profile play to grace the festival was the world premiere of Barrymore-winner Michael Ogborn's comedy Mary, Don't Ask!, the latest work by the composer-librettist whose outstanding musical Baby Case captured four 2002 Barrymore awards. Mary... follows a homophobic housewife named Kathleen (the delightful Anne Cruzan), whose recently deceased drag queen sibling she refers to as "the brother I never had and the sister I never wanted." Troubled by her own lack of femininity, Kathleen is a cynical, lapsed Catholic who spends her days berating her husband and daughter. Her life is turned around by periodic visits from a flamboyant, showtune-belting Virgin Mary (Robert MacCallum), and this scenario provides Ogborn with plenty of comic fodder. But while the first act is riotous and campy, the second act is overly sentimental and predictable. Weak transitions and poorly drawn supporting characters were too much for the inexperienced cast to surmount, and while director Matthew Cloran's pacing was appropriate, Mary, Don't Ask! was ultimately unsatisfying for all of its pleasures.

Far more appealing were the short one-acts and monologues in the multi-show production Dramedy, Drag and Doris Day. Featuring many of the area's top young performers, directors, and playwrights, this bill showed just how illuminating self-effacing humor can be. Beginning with Robert Shaffron's sinister yet campy A Doris Day Collection, in which the marvelous Jerrod Delaney attempted to add the movie starlet herself to his collection of Day memorabilia, the shows were nearly a constant delight. In I Am Joe's Prostate, Delaney and the equally good Pat Doran played a couple of regular guys whose latent homosexual tendencies emerge with amusing results, while Ginger Lazarus' monologue Lemonade saw Erin Reilly (sensational earlier this season in Adam Rapp's Nocturne) give a poignant and well-calibrated performance as a lesbian music teacher preaching on the pitfalls of love to her second grade class. And though Linda Eisenstein's Pretzels & Longing faltered with its stand-up comedy structure, David Simpatico's daring Wish Fulfillment was enormously effective. Structured like an acting exercise, the short play spins a number of variations on a son (Doran) telling his father (Jeff Solomon) that he is gay. The play is alternately funny and disturbing as the father's reactions range from acceptance to bewilderment to rage, and Solomon's honest portrayal made each of Dad's emotions thoroughly believable. In 10 short minutes Wish Fulfillment signaled Simpatico as a playwright to watch.

Although the festival experienced a myriad of technical problems and other growing pains in its initial year, artistic director Matthew Cloran reported that it "just about broke even" at the box office. Cloran reported that the local productions did quite well, especially those produced by the festival (as opposed to pre-existing shows that were invited to participate). Most popular among theatergoers were the aforementioned Mary, Don't Ask and Dramedy, Drag and Doris Day; the Philadelphia premiere of Howard Crabtree's musical revue When Pigs Fly; David Zellnik's full-length work Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom; and Tom Wilson Weinberg's musical revue Bruhs & Gean, which sold out both of its performances.