A South Florida Collaboration Artbuzz Theatrics and Empire Stage
By: Aaron Krause - Oct 12, 2023
In a scene from the hilarious and moving hit play, Sordid Lives, a small-town Texas therapist in 1998 tries to “dehomosexualize” a gay male transvestite.
The scene, which may seem dated, is timelier than you might think. Indeed, the darkly comical moment reminds us that, even in 2023 America, some people are prejudiced and bent on “curing” homosexuality, as though it were a disease.
Obviously, though, playwright Del Shores did not intend to pen solely a cautionary play or a stinging satire when he wrote Sordid Lives less than 30 years ago. Rather, Shores, who hails from small-town Texas, wrote the piece with familiarity and affection for the stereotypical characters and situations he encountered.
Such affection is contagious in ArtBuzz Theatrics’ and Empire Stage Company’s comical and touching co-production of Sordid Lives. It is running through Oct. 22. The venue is Empire Stage’s intimate playing space in Ft. Lauderdale. The running time is two hours, plus an intermission.
Shores’ play, which takes place over two summer days in 1998, received more than 30 award nominations during its long run in Los Angeles. And it is not hard to understand why. Indeed, the piece combines good-natured satire, sharp, funny dialogue, delightfully over-the-top slapstick, down home humor, and touching scenes and themes. They include bigotry, guilt, homosexuality, forgiveness and acceptance. It all adds up to an emotionally satisfying piece of theater. Dramaturgically, the play is more of a series of vignettes than a piece with a traditional dramatic structure.
Ft. Lauderdale’s ArtBuzz Theatrics and Empire Stage have assembled talented performers who nail comic timing. In addition, they inject enough humanity into the characters so that they do not come across as caricatures. You may recognize some of the performers’ names; they are no strangers to the vibrant, top-notch South Florida live theater scene.
Under Larry Buzzeo’s astute direction, performers Dalia Aleman, Francine Birns, Lisa Braun, Buzzeo, Chris Dreeson, David R. Gordon, John Hernandez, Lisa Kerr, Elli Murray, Heather Simsay, and Kevin Veloz all shine. By the way, Buzzeo does triple duty as director, performer (as the gay transvestite) and production designer.
The play’s action centers around the Ingram family. The inciting incident? Grandma Peggy Ingram, a good Christian matriarch, has a tryst with an adulterous Vietnam War veteran named G.W. at a cheap motel (we do not see this happen; it occurs before the play’s action begins). But we learn that during the tryst, Grandma Peggy hit her head and died after tripping over G.W.’s wooden legs.
As family members plan her funeral, Shores gives us an irresistible peak into this clan’s eccentricities. For instance, the women in the family aren’t gonna take it anymore from the men. And, so, they dish out some Thelma and Louise-style vigilante justice. More specifically, in a bar, they hold the men at gunpoint and force them to pose in embarrassing positions, clad in women’s clothing.
Meanwhile, the upcoming funeral interferes with Grandma Peggy’s sister Sissy’s plans to quit smoking. Also, Peggy’s grandson, Ty, comes out of the closet, risking his national soap opera success. In addition, the family matriarch’s straight-laced daughter finally begins cussing, and we learn that a therapist has had little success at “dehomosexualizing” grandma’s gay transvestite son, Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram. Confessions and surprises also pop up during the play.
Although some have dubbed the play “a black comedy about white trash!” you are likely to find relatable characters. As over the top as most of these people are, they are generally well-meaning.
You might raise an eyebrow, however, if someone tells you that Dr. Eve Bolinger also means well.
“You’re my ace in the hole, Earl,” the ambitious therapist arrogantly tells him. “If I could dehomosexualize you I could dehomosexualize anybody.”
This bitter woman harbors ambitions way beyond small-town Texas — and dehomosexualizing Earl could hold the key to reaching her lofty goals.
As part of her efforts to dehomosexualize (and dehumanize) Earl, she has given him homework assignments. They include masturbating to the thought or image of a feminine woman. Also, the therapist has forced Earl to come to sessions wearing less feminine attire.
Why did Earl choose her to treat him? He didn’t have a choice; his grandma put him in the institution where she works.
Buzzeo, who is no stranger to cross dressing for roles, imbues Earl with believable flamboyance and over-the-top emotion, but also sensitivity. As Buzzeo portrays him, Earl is a human being, not just a cartoon character. You sense that he is trying to hold onto his dignity and is obviously shaken by his therapist’s demands. Certainly, Earl has suffered – grandma put him in a state mental institution due to his “condition.”
Opposite Buzzeo, Murray plays the shrewd and ambitious therapist with narrow eyes, a spiteful look, and a sharp voice that combines bitterness and arrogance. She also oozes a kind of evil seduction while trying to force Earl to seduce her. There is little that is redeeming about this character, although Murray refrains from turning her into a total monster. Specifically, Dr. Bollinger is somewhat pleasant when we meet her character.
Other cast standouts include Dresson. Specifically, the performer conveys authentic-sounding remorse as the blue- collar Nethercott, the legless Vietnam veteran whose wooden legs the family matriarch tripped over.
In addition, Gordon conveys convincing regret as Wardell “Bubba” Owens, the former gay-bashing, apologetic bartender.
Meanwhile, through monologues that infuse the play with poignancy, grandson Ty recounts his past experiences, including his efforts to come out of the closet. And Veloz speaks the monologues with such familiarity and sensitivity that you sense the memories are vivid in the character’s mind. Veloz drips sarcasm at times, while during other moments, he seems forthright but also serene as he is finally able to tell his story.
Braun sings soulfully and with a sharp yet pleasant voice as Bitsey Mae Harling, the guitar-playing ex-con singer. With her instrumental and vocal music, she lends just the right ambience to a scene.
Other standout performers are Aleman as a high-strung, uptight Latrelle Williamson, Birns as the more laid-back Sissy Hickey, and Keer as the worldly, liberal-minded La Vonda Dupree. In particular, Keer brings to the role an openness that is refreshing.
Behind the scenes, the artists, particularly the uncredited set designer, used Empire Stage’s small playing space to realistically suggest several locales. For instance, Sissy’s home is colorful, spacious, and inviting. Clearly, a devout Christian lives here. We see a book titled “Jesus Today” on a table, as well as portraits of Jesus on walls. Another portrait of a countryside environment adds to the set’s inviting ambience. It’s also clear from the set that this woman may be a gossip – a gossip tabloid rests on her table.
By moving set pieces around, and without taking a lot of time to do so, the production’s crew seamlessly turns the stage into other locations. They include a church, a bar, and a therapist’s office. Decorations such as the Texas state flag place us in the Lone Star State, while period detail such as an old-fashioned phone sets us in the late 1990s.
Lighting designer Preston Bircher deftly adjusts intensity depending on the scene. For Ty’s monologues and Harling’s songs, the lighting is dimmer and more personal, while highly comic scenes appropriately feature intense, bright lighting.
The fact that this play shines a light on important issues is an added bonus to a piece that consistently entertains. Go and enjoy — if tickets are available.
ArtBuzz Theatrics’ and Empire Stage’s co-production of Sordid Lives continues through Oct. 22. The intimate venue’s address is 1140 N. Flagler Drive in Ft. Lauderdale. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, as well as 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $35, plus tax and fees. For more information, go to www.empirestage.com. Or call (954) 678-1496.