Three decades on since its premiere, the issues at the heart of Harvey Fierstein's seminald comedy-drama Torch Song Trilogy are as relevant as ever. The cast and director of the exciting new Sydney production at Darlinghurst Theatre speak to Garrett Bithell.
“It seems like the right time to bring back this classic in time for Mardi Gras 2013. Torch Song Trilogy marks an important landmark in gay drama, and a festival season is the appropriate event to be presenting a trilogy of plays. The issues surrounding self worth in the face of discrimination, relationship equality, gay adoption and non-traditional families are more relevant than ever. I have been an admirer of what Harvey Fierstein crafted for many years and couldn’t think of a better play that so expertly balances pathos and side-splitting comedy.”
So says Stephen Colyer, who has made a name for himself in recent years with productions such as The Paris Letter, Hello Again and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Colyer is the artistic director of Gaiety Theatre, which champions the visibility of GLBT characters in performance as a tool to counteract prejudice.
Colyer’s latest production is Harvey Fierstein’s comedy-drama Torch Song Trilogy as part of this year’s Mardi Gras festival. A collection of three plays rendered in three acts – International Stud, Fugue in a Nursery, and Widows and Children First! – the story centres of Arnold Beckoff, a torch song-singing Jewish drag queen living in New York City in the late 1970s and 80s. Each act focuses on a different phases in Arnold’s life. In the first, Arnold meets Ed, who is uncomfortable with his bisexuality; in the second, one year later, Arnold meets Alan, and the two happily settle down and plan to adopt a child, until Alan is killed in a homophobic attack; and in the third, Arnold is a single father raising a gay teenager and dealing with his mother’s intolerance when she visits from Florida.
“The torch song analogy speaks to the universal desire we all have for a ‘happy ever after’,” Colyer tells SX. “Arnold has an ideal of what his life can be and is not prepared to compromise on making that dream a reality. Across the three plays he is carrying a torch for a vision of his life that is threatened by various forms of discrimination. It’s a story for anyone who has ever questioned their self worth and wanted their life to be better than it is. It is a wonderful achievement for a show that begun as a monologue about anonymous sex in the back room of a gay bar.”
Playing Arnold in Colyer’s production is talented young actor Simon Corfield, who has made a mark on Sydney’s theatre scene in shows such as Trapture, Bliss and Orestes 2.0. He has also appeared on TV staples like Packed to the Rafters.
“He was born to play this role,” Colyer asserts. “Arnold needs to be funny in one moment and heart breaking in the next; he protects himself through his wit but is essentially a very vulnerable person. Arnold has an ironic way of looking at the world that comes from a tradition of Jewish humour, which is a sensibility you either have within you or you don’t.”
For Corfield, landing the role of Arnold is the sprouting of a creative seed that was planted long ago. “The only thing I knew about the story was that a mum and daughter, who I stayed with on exchange in Japan years ago, heralded the film as their favourite of all time,” he remembers. “I never did get around to seeing it, so when this play was put in front of me, I read it with great curiosity. As soon as I had finished reading it I knew I wanted to be a part of this production. Not for a long time have I had such an immediate response that inspired strength and courage within, whilst leaving me broken-hearted.”
The balancing act between tragedy and comedy in the piece is a “delicious challenge” for Corfield. “Arnold changes direction so quickly; it definitely keeps you on your toes. He has the brilliant ability of resisting his vulnerability through a hilarious sharp wit, only to expose his most inner secrets. Not only do you need to think and feel much quicker, but to be able to explore such superb comedy is an incredible gift.”
Playing Arnold’s mother is theatre stalwart Amanda Muggleton, from the popular TV show Prisoner and numerous stage roles including Privates on Parade, The Matchmaker, The Seagull and Shirley Valentine.
“Simon and I have had to trust each other so much in order to do the full on emotional scenes in this play,” Muggleton tells SX. “Thank God we hit it off straight away. There was no fear in reaching to the bleak places we have to go to. He is going to be wonderful as Arnold.”
However Muggleton admits to finding the material tough to deal with every day. “The issues that I have to deal with in the play are so hard for me,” she muses. “It’s set in late 70s and early 80s, a gut wrenching time for the gay community. People’s opinions, ignorance and fears were terrifying. Having been born into the theatre world it has never been a problem for me. Having to play Ma Beckoff, who is so narrow minded and completely unaccepting of her son’s sexuality, is alien to me.”
Indeed Torch Song Trilogy broke new ground when it premiered by asking audiences to empathise with effeminate gay man’s longing for love and family. It eventually won the 1983 Tony Award for Best Play.
“Harvey’s blend of humanity and humour, and his ability to write a character such as Arnold, is incredible,” Colyer says. “Arnold begins the play as drag queen, an alien entity to many people, but over the events of the play he allows audiences to discover how much they have in common with Arnold. They come to empathise with a character that they would not think they have very much similarity to.
“I invite audiences to discover for the first time what makes this such an enduring play, or to rediscover the consolation to be found in spending time with Arnold Beckoff.”
[Image] Christian Willis, Amanda Muggleton, Simon Corfield and Mathew Verevis in Darlinghurst Theatre’s Torch Song Trilogy. Photo: Jason Nichol
Torch Song Trilogy, Darlinghurst Theatre (19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point), February 6 – March 3. Bookings www.darlinghursttheatre.com.au.