After a year off, Whim Productions is back with its flagship program, “Alphabet Soup: Stories From Queer Voices.” This year, they’re in a new space–the Unity Performance Arts Center, on the lowest level of the Unity Temple on the Plaza. The company has taken on some major renovations in the space leading up to the opening of Alphabet Soup, turning a multi-purpose basement room into a fairly charming theater space.
Those renovations should serve Whim well in the future, as they are now the theater’s official resident company. Still, there is work to be done that is made apparent in this first production in the space. Efforts have clearly been taken to dampen the sound in this large single room, but audiences are still likely to miss large swaths of dialogue, especially in those plays that (rather needlessly) ask their actors to speak in dialect. An apparent lack of accent coaching and a big, echoey chasm do not make for fully intelligible dialogue. Similarly, a low stage and non-raked seating mean that aside from those seated in the front row or two, audiences are bound to spend large chunks of the show craning their necks to see much of the action.
Fortunately, the dialogue in many of this year’s plays nearly makes up for the lack of visibility. Alphabet Soup is comprised of seven short plays, all of which run every night. In honesty, most are more sketches than plays, averaging maybe 15 minutes each, and in the end, the brevity serves the show well. The plays run the gamut from sci-fi activism to the occult to an open-hearted examination of the AA recovery process, all told through a distinctly LGBTQIA+ lens.
All of the shows in this series have an extremely green, workshop feel to them. According to Whim, many of the plays they put up in this program are from writers who have never had their work produced before, or, in some cases, ever even written a play. That’s definitely apparent in the work, but it’s also not to be taken as a negative. Those who don’t go in looking for polished work will be rewarded with a raw look at enthusiastic, unvarnished art.
There are highs and lows throughout the night but every one of the seven plays offers a unique perspective on LGBTQIA life and art. Most of them skew lighter, which helps the entire program flow swiftly, and is also a welcome break from the still all too prevalent idea that the only queer stories there are to be told are ones of tragedy. There is conflict in these plays and there is pain, but there is also humor, warmth, and levity.
There are some standouts in the crowd. Diane Hightower’s “Operation Find the Selkie” imagines two ex-girlfriends alone aboard a submarine, looking for a sea witch they hope can save the world from climate change. With one unable to express emotion and the other only able to communicate deep thoughts in the form of snippets of pop songs like some sort of therapeutic karaoke, Highwater has created a delightfully preposterous scenario. The stakes are raised by descriptions of environmental disaster in the play’s not-distant futuristic setting, then undercut by the reminder that humanity’s survival hinges on an all-powerful blue-faced sea witch with an amused disdain for humans, leaving the audience balanced in a precarious state of bleak absurdity.
Joel Barrett’s “Pink Baby, Blue Blanket” is also worth the price of admission on its own. In what feels like the seed of a larger one-man show, Barrett explores the gender roles we’re all prescribed at birth. “It’s a penis!” the doctor exclaims at Barrett’s birth before correcting himself to the more socially accepted “It’s a boy!”
Frustration and confusion in the face of impenetrable gender rules and vague platitudes about “manliness” are familiar sentiments, but the raw simplicity of Barrett’s script and a stellar performance from Jason Coats as the otherwise unnamed “Narrator” taking us through this journey give a compelling personal line into some common experiences.
Barrett seems to be unsure how to end his piece, abruptly skipping ahead from childhood to coming out as an adult and engaging with men on the internet. If this is meant to be expanded into a full-length piece, he seems to have skipped over an entire second act and most of the third. It’s a bit jarring in the moment but ultimately, it’s a testament to Barrett’s work that I left wanting to see more of it.
“Alphabet Soup: Stories From Queer Voices,” a program by Whim Productions, runs at the Unity Performance Arts Center through October 23. Proof of vaccination is required for audiences. Some plays contain adult themes and partial nudity. For more information, visit whimproductions.com.