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Amir Darvish in Mercury
(Photo © Paul Urban)
Less than two minutes into Mercury: The Afterlife and Times of a Rock God, a one-man show about Queen's legendary front man, actor Amir Darvish strikes a crucifixion pose as Freddie Mercury against the Union Jack flag and washes his sarcoma-lesion stigmata in a pool of holy water. Wow.

The sort of excess that defines glam rock makes it redundant to criticize this bio-play for going over the top. It may also be unfair to fault writer-director Charles Messina for easy pathos and audience handholding, given that he advertises the play's sentimentality in its title. Playing at the Triad Theatre, Mercury has the mass appeal of a nonmusical Love, Janis and it only disappoints in that it could have been a more substantial stage biography.

The play begins at the pearly gates, with the hero in his Queenly throne. He's pleading for salvation and he tells his life story in the process: Freddie Mercury, born Farookh Bulsara, moved to the U.K. from his native Zanzibar in early childhood. Messina uses the immigrant story as the impetus for some platitudes about conflicted identity, as when Freddie's Arabic alter ego tells him, "You hide your race; you hide your sexuality." While both statements have some truth, it would have been far more interesting and original to draw parallels between the singer's multifaceted identity and his broad artistic style.

The image of Mercury as lacking a social conscience is a dramatically useful one, and it may be accurate. His name was synonymous with the decadent '70s and he concealed his HIV status until he was practically on his deathbed. He often said that Queen was a nonpolitical band and he came under fire for playing in apartheid-era South Africa during a cultural boycott. Messina's Mercury retracts his famous public disclosure of his AIDS status with searing defiance, declaring that "Grief with political ends is false." Does the author really believe this? The hero never contradicts it and the play seems to condone social apathy. On the other hand, Mercury's revelations about the important things in life bring up obvious morals concerning the virtues of monogamy ("I loved one man and one man alone") and the emptiness of hedonism and fame.

Mercury makes it appear that the man's career was nothing more than a flight from an unhappy childhood and a conflicted ethnic identity. Messina's vision of this rock god leaves little room for the rock; he references only one Queen song with the opening bass chords of "Another One Bites the Dust." The sound designer has chosen The Sex Pistols' punk anthem "Anarchy in the UK" as the show's exit music, presumably because of the lyric "God Save the Queen." Ironically, punk music was a reaction against the sound that Queen represented, which had a grandeur that many rockers and fans regarded as overblown and pretentious.

Despite Mercury's commitment to being nonpolitical, he was very much a man of the world. His extravagance had many artistic influences, ranging from opera to vaudeville, and he picked up movement techniques from an all-male dance troupe. While it's clear that Messina has done his homework, he ignores the substance beneath Queen's gaudy surface. Freddie Mercury was as meticulous as he was exuberant, his performance style as skillfully crafted as it was flamboyant.

Accessible enough for the Queen un-initiated, Mercury provides a showcase for Amir Darvish's talents. Although his performance would benefit from a few breaths and pauses, Darvish captures the mercurial energy of the legend. The play itself has many merits, and Messina has written memorable one-liners for the man he describes as the "Cecil B. DeMille of Rock." The best of these involves the star's meditation on mortality: "Death is a drag, but immortality -- hold on to your skin, dears!" Still, the script suffers from its own unrealized potential, raising many interesting questions about Farookh Bulsara but providing facile answers. Theatergoers hoping for some light to be shed on the life of Freddie Mercury will instead see only a silhouetto of the man.

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