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Theatre: Skin and steam come to the stages of Uptown

'Richmond Jim' and 'Steamwerkz the Musical' now playing

Chicago, IL — Small town boy comes to the big city to find life, love and sexual freedom -- it's the classic gay plotline, a story told again and again with many variations. Two such tales are currently being told on stages in Uptown; one gives audiences a peek inside the bedroom of a pair of lovers in the golden era of post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS New York City and the other takes viewers on a zany, Alice In Wonderland-inspired tour of Chicago's famous Halsted Street bathhouse.

Steamwerkz the Musical
Steamwerkz the Musical
"Richmond Jim" and "Steamwerkz the Musical" are separated by nearly 30 years, a difference highlighted in many ways, not the least of which is the mood of each piece. As different as they are, however, both shows maintain a few important similarities. Both are honest portrayals of life in the gay community, unabashedly exploring topics like casual sex and drug use simply as a matter of life, not life and death. Both shows are also easy on the costume budget -- the cast of "Steamwerkz the Musical" is clad, of course, only in towels and "Richmond Jim" is performed largely in the nude.

"Richmond Jim"

Pride Films and Plays' production of "Richmond Jim" revives a show that has been lost for almost 30 years. Called "the first genuine gay play," Carl Yeoman's tale of sexual liberation and discovery was originally produced by the famous Theater Rhinoceros. It was named Best Gay Play of the Year, won San Francisco's 1980 Cable Car Award for Outstanding Achievement in Drama and was chosen to run at the First National Gay Arts Festival held in New York City in 1980. Even with all this notoriety, however, "Richmond Jim" was last performed in 1983. 

When director David Zak came across the show in Robert A. Schanke's biography of Carl Yeoman, he asked around Chicago's theatre community only to find everyone unfamiliar with the work, which he deemed "too important to remain undiscovered."

"I felt strongly that this play – which is a wonderful reflection of gay life before AIDS – would touch those who lived through this period, and teach those who have been born since," Zak said.

The show opens with two men lying naked in bed together the morning after they first meet. The younger Jim, played by PFP ensemble member Kris Hyland, is a recent transplant from Richmond, VA while Mike, portrayed by actor and model Chris Kossen, is an older man with all the experience and cosmopolitan knowledge that Jim lacks. 

Throughout the night, Mike introduced Jim to gay experiences that are a far cry from what he knew in Richmond. The world he weaves is one that combines sensuality and deviance, including the use of pot, poppers and cocaine and the trying on of BDSM festishware, all while a phonograph plays period music in the background.

While the first and third acts belong to Mike and Jim alone, Mike's friend Biddy drops by for Act II. Zak described Biddy as a sort of genderless person, both lonely and funny. In the Chicago Theatre Beat's review of the show, however, Biddy is called the "embodiment of gay glamour," and described as a poetic, French-spouting, quippy queen who "puts the audience at ease and is the most lyrical character in the play."

The story is one of transformation, specifically that which results from the loss of innocence and the transference of knowledge from an older man to a younger man, which Zak says "rings true for many men who were initiated into many parts of gay life by older mentors."

"I know some nights there is a lot of laughter and fun in the audience, other nights have been more intense," Zak told ChicagoPride.com. "I think there are some fun and campy moments, but most of it is poetic and dramatic. And sexy as hell because the nudity is right out there."

The show, presented as part of "Naked July" opened June 29 and closes August 8, leaving a handful of chances for audiences to catch this rare treat at Chicago's National Pastime Theatre, 941 W Lawrence Ave. "Richmond Jim" plays Thursday July 19, Tuesday and Wednesday July 24 and 25 as well as August 7 and 8 at 8:00 p.m., Sunday July 22 at 6:00 p.m. and Friday and Saturday August 3 and 4 at midnight. More information about the show and purchasing tickets can be found at http://pridefilmsandplays.com/jim.html.

"Steamwerkz the Musical"

Where "Richmond Jim" is poetic and sensitive, the Annoyance Theater's production of "Steamwerkz the Musical" is loud, crass and fun. The show begins with Al, a naive Nebraskan transplant to Chicago singing a tour de Boystown, lampooning every Halsted haunt from Minibar to Bucks Saloon and lamenting his inability to fit in. The plot really begins when he follows a sexy stranger who cruised him on the street, a.k.a. the man of his dreams, to a club he's never heard of before: Steamwerkz. 

What follows is a funny, brash Alice In Wonderland-inspired trip through one of gay Chicago's most famous landmarks filled with references to the local gay scene and a fearless comedy that leaves no subject unexplored. Along the way, Al encounters Twinkie Dee and Twinkie Dum (Zach Zimmerman and Chris Kervick), two employees of the bathhouse who give Al a tour of the facilities in the first group song, "Lay of the Land," describing Steamwerkz as, among other things that can't all be written here, "an Old Country Buffet if all the food was gay."

Al also meets Chester (Andrew Eninger), a kind older man who hasn't seen the outside world in years, Dewayne, the denizen of the steam room, and the drug-crazed,"T" party throwing Mad Max (the latter two both played by Ben Kramer). Without giving too much away, Al's mysterious man turns out to be Steven Stephan (Rob Anderson) the pretty, but dumb boy-toy of the King of Steam (Jason Geis), who rules over the bathhouse and its patrons.

"It all falls into place. It gives the audience, I think, straight or gay, a place to be grounded in," Director Clay Goodpasture said of his decision to base the show off Alice in Wonderland. "They know who these characters are, they know what's going to happen next and then we throw in some twists to that story to make it a little bit fuller."

These twists include parodying Carroll's "The Walrus and the Carpenter" with "The Blob of Cum and the Bloody Band-Aid," a hilarious vignette about what lies at the bottom of the jacuzzi, and filling one of the infamous vending machines with the traditional "drink me," "eat me" as well as a bottle of poppers labeled "sniff me."

The show's comedy stays fresh as a result of the improv-to-narrative method of production employed by The Annoyance. Goodpasture began with a skeletal plot and throughout the rehearsal process, the cast, many of whom trained with Second City and its derivative GayCo, came up with the particulars of the show, improvising the scene ideas into dialogue and each writing the lyrics to two of the musical's songs.

"You don't know where it's gonna go and then everyone just gets up and we improvise it, we improvise it, we improvise it again until it gets to be funny. There were things that you saw last night that I've never seen before," Goodpasture said. "So there's not a set script for it and because they created it, then they're free to try something new in it. It's an interesting thing to go from nothing to something."

Much of show's press has centered around the relationship between "Steamwerkz the Musical" and Steamworks the bathhouse, so Goodpasture set the record straight for ChicagoPride.com. Steamworks was excited about the show when initially contacted at the beginning of the rehearsal process, but communication faltered and after a few unreturned phone calls The Annoyance made the executive decision to change the name from W-O-R-K-S to W-E-R-K-Z to avoid affiliation messiness.

Steamworks returned near the end of the pre-production process, however, interested in sponsoring the show and currently the two have a great working relationship. The bathhouse provided Steamworks uniforms and goodie bags for the show and helped tremendously with advertising. Additionally, the musical and bathhouse are teaming up put on shows inside of Steamworks and are sharing the bathhouse's booth at Market Days, taking a break from nearly-naked Twister to showcase songs or scenes from the musical that (almost) bears its name.

During rehearsal, Goodpasture was surprised to discover that half his cast had never been to Steamworks and ordered a field trip to the famed bathhouse at 3246 N Halsted. Their experiences, like the show itself, helped shed light on what was considered a taboo topic to reveal, in essence, what Steamworks is really all about.

"It's the cruising experience minus the bar and the subterfuge - it's pure unabashed sex fantasy," Eninger told ChicagoPride.com. "I think there's an internal hurdle for many of us to admit that we are attracted by that fantasy. It's shameless in the best sense of the word - without shame."

"Steamwerkz the Musical" runs through August 31 with shows every Friday night at 10 p.m. at The Annoyance Theater and Bar, 4830 N. Broadway. To find out more information about the show or to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.annoyanceproductions.com/steamwerkz/index.shtml.
 
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It was amazing!
Posted by Jason Orne on Thu, 7/19/2012 1:14 PM
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