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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Although the years have brought much more openness and acceptance, prejudice is hardly gone forever and completely. Early AIDS victims were treated like Lepers. Same sex marriage is still not universal. The right of people in the armed services to declare their homosexuality has been a long time coming. And plenty of young men still tend to fear ostracism when they reveal their sexual orientation. This is especially so for young men from small, conservative towns, like Cyril Wilcox who is this play's unseen but pivotal character. It also tends to apply to those from elite backgrounds where the pressure to succeed and conform is itense.
The secret interviews, set into motion by failing student Cyril Wilcox's suicide at his family's home in Fall River, Massachusetts, led to a dragnet for a group of Harvard men suspected of engaging in homosexual or "unnatural quot; acts, Room 28 of Harvard's Perkins Hall where Eugene Roberts, a Congressman's son, hosted parties for neighbors and town residents who shared his taste for liquor and male sexual encounters became the principal target of the 5-man committee's inquiries which had all the hallmarks of a Kangaroo court.
Eugene Cummings was not the only fellow devasted by the Committee's invasive questioning and punitive actions, but his was the most immediate, drastic and sensational reaction. He believed that his testimony, a snippet of which is quoted at the top of this review, would not land on a single sympathetic ear and that whatever he said would go unheeded and end up being buried. How right he was.
As if this witch hunt weren't enough of a dark page in the history of one of our most revered educational institutions, the documents accumulated during the interviews were shamefully buried for eighty years in a file labeled "Secret Court 1920." It took Harvard student and Crimson reporter Amit Paley to see a story in that file and insist on having the hidden documents released. Though the names had been redacted to avoid identifying the students involved, Paley was determined to reveal the truth and nothing but the truth (in keeping with Harvard's motto: "Veritas" (That motto was the title of another play about these events that made quite an impression at last year's Fringe Festival, including on our reviewer — see review). He and a team of fellow reporters doggedly combed through other records and documents to unlock the identity puzzle. And it is the Crimson article, a book about the trial that paved the way for Speciale and his company to make this fascinating faction possible.
The theatricality with which the story unfolds can take your breath away, beginning with the the opening group portrait of the cast posed against an imposing bookcase to establish that we are at a place where Socrates and Shakespeare are integral to the rigorous curriculum. (Scenes featuring recitations from Socrates and Anthony and Cleopatra serve as ironic commentaries on what's happening to the speakers). The opening image of a student portrait dissolves with each actor tossing off a phrase about how he knew Wilcox as he moves to a side section. The ctors thus remain on stage as shadowy participants and to easily move back into the central playing area as called for.
The dual use of props that allow a desk to turn into the sinks for bathroom scene and also metamorphose into a coffin carried by the pall bearers at Cyril Wilcox's funeral. Abetted by Justin Townsend's darkly expressive lighting, the actors playing the variously accused men also assume the roles of the committee members.
The at times overlapping dialogue and the shift between trial testimony and interchanges between the students that include a party in Room 28 at which Roberts is dressed in a sexy jazz age gown, are reminiscent of Moises Kaufman's first big success, the extraordinary Gross Indecency. That play's central character, Oscar Wilde, is evoked at Roberts's party by Harold Saxon, a 1919 graduate who remained at Harvard for his PhD and as a tutor. Saxon, who like Roberts was a pallbearer at Cyril Wilcox's funeral, turns the party into a eulogy. He reminisces about time spent with Wilcox, and concludes by describing him as "a spirited man, before he began to call himself Salome's Child". His passionate comments prompt reminiscences from others.
The concept of the back and forth structure, the filmic lighting and the fact that the actors are not well known and instantly recognizable, makes it a bit hard to sort out who's who, at least at the very beginning. But Nick Westrate immediately distinguishes himself as the fun loving, daring ring leader. No confusing Will Rogers, with anyone else either, Even if he wasn't such a compelling performer, he'd stand out by virtue of being the tallest of the Perkins Hall residents and the one who is the straightest arrow — though he does admit to enjoying himself at the one party he attends. That said, the entire cast is magnificent, with all putting the stamp of individuality on their characters.
Max Jenkins is especially memorable as the smarmy Stanley Gilkey who manages to persuade the Committee that he was part of Roberts' group to satisfy his interest in criminology. Roderick Hill, is also excellent as Cyril Wilcox's older brother Lester, who's not one of the accused but the accuser responsible for the investigation and the real villain of this story.
In fairness to Harvard, while the secretive and intimidating methods of the Secret Court were certainly deplorable, their being more put off by the sexual doing at Perkins 28 than the heavy duty drinking, was not a Harvard thing, but part of the period's zeitgeist. Harvard graduates Tony Speciale and actor-co-writer Jess Burkl don't let their alma mater off the hook, but ultimately Unnatural Acts is a cautionary Never Again Anywhere as well as an absorbing and entertaining theatrical experience.
A consumer caveat postscript: Speciale's direction is not particularly attentive to this venue's 3-sided thrust stage. Anyone seated in the side sections, especially the rear rows of the one furthest from the entrance, is likely to have less than a clear view of the actors' faces. A center section seat is definitely more desirable.
Book of Mormon -CD
Our review of the show
Slings & Arrows-the complete set
You don't have to be a Shakespeare aficionado to love all 21 episodes of this hilarious and moving Canadian TV series about a fictional Shakespeare Company