Photograph by Dale Albright
STRANGER IN A STRANGE NATION: Jennifer Debevec interprets one of Susan Werner's songs in Theatre Q's 'My Strange Nation.'
Theatre Q's revue 'My Strange Nation' looks at America through a gay prism
By Marianne Messina
IN A DARING concept, Theatre Q artistic director Dale Albright has taken some of Susan Werner's music (a touch of blues, a dash of gospel and some evocations hailing back to Cole Porter, one of her influences) and turned it into the revue-style production called My Strange Nation. Albright's interpretations of the songs often add lesbian or gender-bending overtones to Werner's lyrics. "Misery and Happiness," for instance, presents a light male-bash in lesbian's clothing when Diahanna Davidson sings the role of Misery (a lot of MC swagger in a velvet, black-cuffed jacket) and Halili Knox sings Happiness, as if they're a male (Misery) and female (Happiness) lover fighting over Jenny Debevec. In a wickedly humorous touch, Davidson's Misery sings a cocky come-on all the while trying to push Debevec's head down toward "his" crotch. Sometimes the humor comes from life, plain and simple: Connie Nelson sings, "I'm waiting at the station with my old friend sublimation" between finger licks of her empty chip bags and ice cream tub.
As strange as the multifaceted, contrary, sometimes exclusionary American nation seen from the eyes of gay America, My Strange Nation has an arc like a journey through multiple personality disorder. At some points in the show, it's all about the sarcasm of mildly militant lyrics, as in lines like "Deliver us from those who think they're you." The opener, "My Strange Nation," is an anthem for those sharing certain views (say, anyone who's found the political air stifling for the last seven-plus years). In this vein, the most cathartic moment comes when the teacher sadistically whaps her pointer across Dick Cheney's face. Ensemble numbers with lots of visual gags serve the political humor best, and like pep rallies, they improve to the degree that the audience joins in.
The midsection of the show is all about the music, emphasizing romance, glamour and an old jazz-ballad era. Here, Werner's songs excel, and the five talented singers in this production have a chance to shine. Debevec delivers a torch song, deliberately overplaying the type, sprawling on her back over the stage steps, modeling her bare, high-heeled legs. But letting the warm texture of her voice loose for just one sweet held note before resuming her comedic vocal exaggeration is Debevec's most merciless tease. In fact, this show's drive to squeeze humor out of Werner's songs is often at odds with the enjoyment of the songs as musical pieces. But when music and context work together, the effect is powerful. After Davidson sings a deep bluesy "OK to Feel Good" to shy Jennifer Knisbell, Knisbell comes back with an apostrophe to the absent Davidson, "I Like That You're Pretty." Timidly blushing, with Liza Minnelli appeal, Knisbell makes the song irresistible, even through lyrics that aren't exactly sympathetic, and creates one of the most touching musical moments of the evening.
Does Werner's Americana/gospel/folk work as revue? Somewhat. My Strange Nation is a bit like a merry-go-round without the painted horses. For one thing, a small combo or a nicely orchestrated recording would do wonders—I'm sure the reason for the lonely pianist is budget, budget, budget—but if any musicians out there would like to volunteer ... Still, the show has personality, actually five big personalities, and their five-part harmonies, especially in the finale, "I Suggest," carry the day.
MY STRANGE WORLD, a Theatre Q production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Sept. 7 at Dragon Theatre, 535 Alma St., Palo Alto. Tickets are $15–$25. (415.433.1235)
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