I like it when plays teach me about history that I’ve never learned before. Especially when they show us the people behind the stunning historical figures. Fighting Chance Productions‘ newest offering, The Tempermentals does just that: John Marans’ play dramatizes the personal struggles and stories of Harry Hay and Rudy Gernreich, who pioneered homosexual rights in the United States. And they did this in the 1950s, with the House of Un-American Activities in full swing, with people being arrested and brutally stigmatized based on vague and arbitrary suspicions.
The play shows us just how hostile the McCarthy era was towards homosexuals, suspected leftists, or anyone thought of as threatening to the fabric of “good, clean American society”. The danger of the times is especially strident in the crackly recordings of General McCarthy‘s outrageous speeches that intersperse the performance. I couldn’t help but laugh at his warnings about how to spot a communist, because they were delivered in dead seriousness, but sound like the ravings of one who has taken leave of his senses entirely. Of course, nothing is funny about his opinions, or the laws and policies they supported. We see their oppression and cruelty that hurt, bully and punish the people in the play, whose only crime is being who they are.
And in this dark and hostile climate, there is a beautiful, hopeful thing: the love between Harry and Rudi. It is a sweet, mischievous, witty love, between two unlikely mates. Rudi is an up-and-coming LA fashion designer, who moves easily through the glamour crowd, charming everyone in his wake. Harry on the other hand, is political science teacher, with a background in law, who is terribly passionate, but easily incensed and uncompromising in his vision of a safe society for homosexuals.
Neither belongs in the other’s world — especially because Harry is married — but the two are like a refuge for each other, a space away from the world where they don’t have to fight or hide. It is really touching to see how their love for each other emboldened the movement that led to the founding of the Mattachine Society — the first specifically homophile society in the United States. Watching the play, you really get a sense of how terrifying it was to take the stand that Harry, Rudi and their allies did. But while also seeing how doing anything other than taking a stand involved living with the tremendous amount of shame and loneliness that comes from living like a fugitive while having done nothing wrong.
Harry Hay and Rudi Gernreich were stunning human beings who showed incredible courage in hard times, and their actions shaped history. I know this now thanks to The Tempermentals, playwright John Marans, Fighting Chance Productions and director Ryan Mooney for bringing this play to the Canadian stage for the first time.
The actors did an great job transporting the audience, and so did the unusual set design. It is stark and intimate with few props, and with four different platforms that light up at different times. This set up with the minimal lighting gives the impression that we are overhearing whispers, secret rendezvous, and dangerous truths. Congratulations to actors Brian Hinson (Harry Hay), Devin Pihlanien (Rudi Gernreich), James Gill, David Nicks and Rob Monk (all three of whom played a variety of characters wonderfully and in quick succession).
You can (and must) see The Tempermentals at the PAL Theatre in Vancouver until December 3rd. Showtimes are 8 pm from Tuesday — Saturday, 2 pm matinees on Saturday and two shows on Sunday at 2 pm & 7 pm.