A play about a Jewish New York drag-queen might seem a rather obvious choice to perform during Mardi Gras 2013, however when you skim below the surface Torch Song Trilogy has more to offer than frills and feather boas. On entering the rehearsal space of the Torch Song cast, one is immediately struck by the camaraderie amongst the crew, despite their short time together. There is laughter and a torrent of jokes as the actors battle the sweltering heat to perform Fugue in a Nursery, the second play in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy. The four actors present, Belinda Wollaston, Simon Corfield, Christian Willis, and Thom Jordan form a complicated love quadrangle in this second act, which has undoubtedly brought them closer, and is reflected in their ease and friendliness during our photo shoot.
All flippantness aside, director Stephen Colyer is particularly excited to be bringing this production back to Sydney, which, despite its highly comical elements, he insists is not all froth and bubble. Written in the 1970s, when homosexuality was still predominantly viewed with hostility and fear, this series of three plays was inspired by Fierstein’s life. The play won two Tony Awards for its Broadway production, with Fierstein in the lead role. 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of the play since these awards; as Wollaston points out, the theme of Mardi Gras 2013, ‘Generations of Love’ is a fitting introduction for this new generation of actors to perform the play about one man’s quest for love.
As the title suggests, these plays pursue the theme of a torch song, a relatively dated term, which simply means a sentimental love song, often of unrequited love. The script makes reference to the use of music, however these artistic choices are left up to the director. Colyer has chosen to go with a modern twist to the torch song category, and musical director Phil Scott has arranged a number of popular songs to fit the torch song category. For the first time, however, the music will be performed by the cast themselves, led by Belinda Wollaston bringing her considerable experience from her roles in musicals such as Mamma Mia! and Dr Zhivago. Whilst Torch Song is not a musical, music does play an essential role. Colyer claims the structure of each play is very different, with the first two being very experimental, “so the opportunity to use music creates lots of possibilities that are particular to each production.”
Yet whilst the torch song analogy undoubtedly refers to Arnold’s complicated love affairs, it also has a deeper meaning. According to Colyer, Arnold “has a vision of how he wants his life to be, and because he’s gay at that time [1970s] he’s led to believe that he’s not entitled to that vision, and the degree of self respect that he insists upon.” Arnold’s torch is his refusal to compromise this vision. Corfield, who plays Arnold, brings a delightful lightness and sparkle to the role, yet he insists Arnold’s drag career is more incidental to the character, rather than informing his personality. Corfield acknowledges that when playing the role of Arnold it is impossible to ignore Fierstein “because he’s such a wonderful force.” He watched interviews of Fierstein to see his timing, and New York Jewish sensibility, yet claims it is the “astoundingly beautiful writing” and comedy that really brings Arnold to life.
Amanda Muggleton, Christian Willis, Simon Corfield, Mathew Verevis, Belinda Wollaston, and Thom Jordan. Photo by Tom Ferguson.
The third play, Widows and Children First confronts the issue of gay parenting, when Arnold decides to adopt a son. As Colyer points out, it’s incredibly ahead of its time. “Back 30 years ago there weren’t really that many gay people who were that interested in parenting, because the Gay Rights Movement had more pressing issues… it’s only now that they’re actually becoming relevant.” The culmination in a domestic drama reveals the subtleties with which Fierstein has woven Arnold’s story. Colyer explains the play’s arc, declaring from the beginning the audience is confronted with a character who would have been considered “gay in the extreme, because he’s not only gay, he’s a drag queen.” The second play gently draws comparisons between the gay and straight characters, all inhabiting the same bed in an Absurdist drama. What becomes evident is that the issues faced by homosexual couples are similar to those faced by heterosexual couples.
So by the time it comes to the third play, where Arnold is having very painful issues with his mother, Colyer says “I think the audience totally can relate to this guy, and they recognise that he’s having the same struggles with trying to find his soul mate, with trying to sort out the parent/child dynamic that everybody has.”
Torch Song Trilogy is being performed at Theatre 19, Darlinghurst Theatre, 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point. Previews February 1-3, Season February 6 – March 3. For booking enquiries please visit www.darlinghursttheatre.com/theatre19 or call 02 8356 9987.