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The Lighter Side of Gay Pride: Randolph Play Festival Takes a Turn Toward Comedy 

  • Director Richard Waterhouse discusses light positions with the crew of "The Little Dog Laughed" at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph, Vt., on July 15, 2014. <br/>At right is Norwich actress Leah Romano. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Director Richard Waterhouse discusses light positions with the crew of "The Little Dog Laughed" at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph, Vt., on July 15, 2014.
    At right is Norwich actress Leah Romano. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • In a scene in Mitchell's hotel room, Mitchell, left, an up-and-coming actor, played by Clint Bigham of Los Angeles, begins to regret hiring Alex, a hustler, played by Spencer Morrissey, of Los Angeles, during a technical rehearsal of "The Little Dog Laughed" at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph, Vt., on July 15, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    In a scene in Mitchell's hotel room, Mitchell, left, an up-and-coming actor, played by Clint Bigham of Los Angeles, begins to regret hiring Alex, a hustler, played by Spencer Morrissey, of Los Angeles, during a technical rehearsal of "The Little Dog Laughed" at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph, Vt., on July 15, 2014.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Leah Romano of Norwich, breaks from her comedic, acerbic persona of Diane, to listen to instructions during a rehearsal for The Little Dog Laughed, a 2006 play being performed at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph, Vt., on July 15, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Leah Romano of Norwich, breaks from her comedic, acerbic persona of Diane, to listen to instructions during a rehearsal for The Little Dog Laughed, a 2006 play being performed at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph, Vt., on July 15, 2014.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Director Richard Waterhouse discusses light positions with the crew of "The Little Dog Laughed" at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph, Vt., on July 15, 2014. <br/>At right is Norwich actress Leah Romano. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • In a scene in Mitchell's hotel room, Mitchell, left, an up-and-coming actor, played by Clint Bigham of Los Angeles, begins to regret hiring Alex, a hustler, played by Spencer Morrissey, of Los Angeles, during a technical rehearsal of "The Little Dog Laughed" at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph, Vt., on July 15, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Leah Romano of Norwich, breaks from her comedic, acerbic persona of Diane, to listen to instructions during a rehearsal for The Little Dog Laughed, a 2006 play being performed at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph, Vt., on July 15, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Randolph — The importance of being earnest about the lives and tribulations of gays and lesbians will give way to an imperative to laugh, for two of the next 10 nights of the Vermont Pride Theater Summer Festival at the Chandler Center for the Arts.

“The three plays we put on last year were good,” director-actor Richard Waterhouse of Newbury, Vt., recalled last week, “but we realized after, these are all dramas. We hadn’t taken that into consideration.”

To lighten up the fourth annual festival, which runs from Friday through July 27, Waterhouse will direct four young actors in The Little Dog Laughed, the Douglas Carter Beane play that in 2007 earned a Tony nomination for best comedy or musical, at 7:30 on Saturday night and on the night of July 25. It follows the misadventures of a rising actor torn between advancing his career and openly acknowledging his identity as a gay man.

“It got on my radar screen when it was nominated for a Tony,” said Waterhouse, who acted in one of the three dramas at the 2013 Vermont Pride festival. “We hadn’t seen the show, so we read it. It’s incredibly witty and well-written. (Beane) is so great with words. … I wanted to do a witty, gay-centered play. I didn’t want to do another AIDS-related piece.”

Even the more serious plays at the festival mine the humor that grows organically in hard times. In Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, the Jane Chambers play from 1980, a straight woman encounters a community of lesbians, precipitating change and revelations among all the characters. The cast of Vermont and New Hampshire actresses performs at 7:30 on Friday night and at 7 on July 27, under the direction of Jeanne Beckwith.

And David Zak, executive director of the Chicago-based Pride Films and Plays, will direct his adaptation of the Will Fellows book Farm Boys — based on interviews of men between the ages of 24 and 84 who grew up gay in farm families — at 7 p.m. on Sunday and at 7:30 on July 26.

Zak, who last year directed all three of the festival’s dramas, said that he initially planned this spring and summer to adapt the E.M. Forster novel Maurice, about an Englishman’s lifelong tussle with the homosexuality that dawned on him as a schoolboy in the early 20th century. Then Farm Boys emerged as both a challenge and an opportunity.

“We decided it was time to go with a play about gays in rural situations,” Zak said. “It has people juggling issues of religion, family, whatever it is, with who they really are. It rips your heart out when you know it’s absolutely true: Fathers and sons. Loneliness. Not fitting in. Bullying.”

Festival organizer Sharon Rives also saw Farm Boys as both an opportunity to spur discussion, and to be accessible to a wider audience.

“We almost never see anything about young people growing up gay on farms and in small towns,” Rives said. “I’m on pins and needles to see how it works on stage.”

While The Little Dog Laughed originated on stage, Waterhouse is eager to see how this comedy of manners, which includes scenes of the gender-identity-conflicted protagonist in bed with a male hustler, translates for Vermonters and Upper Valley residents of all ways of life.

“The Midwestern boy in me worries a little,” the 53-year-old Waterhouse said. “It wasn’t cool to be gay when I was growing up. You didn’t openly express affection, let alone homosexuality. I wonder, ‘Is anybody going to be cringing? Is there going to be murmuring?’ This play pushes the boundaries a little. But you can’t soft-soap it. If a man and a woman were doing this on stage, you wouldn’t think anything of it.”

If anything, Waterhouse wonders more about winning laughs with some of the inside-baseball aspects of a play set in the sometimes surreal world of show business in Hollywood — where he lived and worked for 18 years — and New York —which he inhabited for five.

“There’s a sophistication about the characters that you don’t often see these days,” Waterhouse said. “They have to say words like ‘repugnant’ and ‘ephemeral.’ Almost nobody speaks like that anymore. It took a little work to get a cast of people in their 20s and 30s used to it. … There was some discussion coming in about, ‘Will our audience understand the humor of this comedy?’ My thought was, ‘They’ll follow you. They’ll catch on.’ ”

Waterhouse expects the cast will help. He describes Clint Bigham, the young Los Angeles actor whom he cast without auditioning in person, as “perfect for the role” of the conflicted actor Mitchell. “He’s like a modern-day Cary Grant. His energy adds a great texture to the piece.”

As does Norwich actress Leah Romano, who plays the agent who wheedles Mitchell to tamp down what she describes as his “slight recurring case of homosexuality” in the name of keeping his career on an upward arc. Julie White, a friend of Waterhouse and his husband, actor Dan Butler, won a best-lead-actress Tony in 2007 for her portrayal of the character.

“It’s a hard act to follow,” Waterhouse said of White’s Tony-winning performance. “It’s a lot to bite off. But Leah’s up to it.”

Joining Bigham and Romano, who has performed with Shaker Bridge Theatre and the Parish Players, is fellow Norwich resident Caitlin Glasgo as Ellen, the girlfriend of Alex, the male hustler who lights Mitchell’s fire. Glasgo has performed in several productions at the Chandler, including a staged reading that Waterhouse directed of 8 — Dustin Lance Black’s dramatization of the court case that overturned California’s Proposition 8 limiting marriage to between a man and a woman — in November 2012. Morrisville, Vt.-bred Spencer Morrissey plays Alex.

Vermonters in the cast of Farm Boys includes David Atkinson of Braintree, Gene Heinrich of Bethel and South Royalton High School junior-to-be William Wuttke.

In addition to the plays on the weekends, the festival on Tuesday night at 7 will screen the HBO film version of the Moises Kaufman play The Laramie Project, about the reactions of citizens of that Wyoming city to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. The screening will take place in the Esther Mesh Room of Chandler’s Upper Gallery.

And on Wednesday night at 7 in the Esther Mesh Room, an ensemble of area young people will read from Leslea Newman’s poem cycle October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. Newman , a University of Vermont graduate and western-Massachusetts resident whose 60-plus books include A Letter to Harvey Milk and Heather Has Two Mommies , will discuss the poems and sign copies of October Mourning after the performance.

Advance tickets for the plays are $12 to $17, and tickets at the door are $15 to $20. For the price of two tickets, buyers qualify for a Pride Pass valid for any three admissions. For tickets and more information, visit chandler-arts.org/events.php?event=298.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304 .