Women in the Shadows

Despite Susan Sontag’s famous claim that camp sensibility is essentially apolitical because it is purely aesthetic, and that it is about a refusal to identify or engage with extreme emotions, the impulse behind camp has often, if not always, been a reaction to and sympathy with great pain. The politics of camp are a politics of persistent, if sometimes coded, visibility. It is that visibility, that celebration of the artificial, barely disguised codes of gender and sexual difference, which fueled the paradigm-shifting events at the Stonewall Tavern in 1969. Beebo Brinker Chronicles, adapted by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman from a series of novels by Ann Bannon, is not full-on camp, but there is a campiness in its stylization of emotion and its celebration of Bannon’s gloriously over-the-top hardboiled language. Unlike true camp, however, Beebo Brinker Chronicles lets the curtain slip a little so we can see the pain beneath the laughs.

Bannon’s books, first published in the late 1950s and early 1960s, are feverish, emotionally charged pulp novels about lesbians struggling against heteronormativity to find sex, love, and a sense of self. These tales of butch and femme, of housewives and barflies, are infused with a sweaty-palmed urgency and sensual turn of phrase that drove them to sell hundreds of thousands of copies in a time when no one could claim that a flirtation with lesbianism was in any way “fashionable.”

The performances, slightly stylized and over-the-top, are remarkable. Three in particular stand out: Autumn Dornfield’s Beth is a frenzied bundle of repressed desire, struggling to maintain dignity as she discovers a new life in Greenwich Village. Beebo herself (Jennn Colella) is a hardened and cynical but still secretly romantic figure who is afraid anyone attracted to as masculine a woman as she must actually want a man. Jack (David Greenspan) is an aging, semi-closeted alcoholic with a taste for younger men. Each of these actors embraces the tone of the production, balancing stylization with passion, and irony with pathos. Greenspan in particular is in his element here. His peculiar, self-aware acting style always brings with it a distinct whiff of metatheatricality, and in Beebo Brinker Chronicles he shines with such wit and precision that the other actors, fine as they are, fade by comparison.

Rachel Hauck’s cleverly efficient set is constructed and painted to evoke the faded glory of fifties-era pulp fiction book covers. Nicole Pearce’s lights and Theresa Squire’s costumes further add to this atmosphere, not so much recreating a time as re-imagining a memory of a fiction. The affectionate nostalgia of the production design compliment nicely the work of the actors and the playwrights. Credit for the cohesion of these various elements must go to director Leigh Silverman.

In the play's opening scenes, the tone is all humor and irony, but as the action progresses it becomes clear that the humor is both a way to mask the great pain that drives the story and a reminder to the audience that things, in many ways, are different now. As recent headlines attest, there can still be good reasons to fear coming out as gay or lesbian, but for much of the audience of Beebo Brinker Chronicles, this show is a chance to celebrate how much has had to change in order for these tales to be rendered as a brightly lit object of nostalgia rather than a guilty, dog-eared pleasure hidden carefully under the mattress.

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