Saturday, June 9, 2018

"Six Characters in Search of a Play"


Six Characters in Search of a Play
Del Shores


Del Shores
“I’m a storytelling thief,” confesses the ever-smiling, hands-flying “minor gay celebrity” (his words) standing just a few feet from his already enraptured audience – about fifty of what must be hundreds of thousands of loyal fans of Brother Boy, Bitsy Mae, Latrelle, Sissy, LaVonda, and ‘Bubba’ Wardell.  Those are the southern, trash-talking, cigarette-and-bourbon-toting family members that so many of us have come to know and love through Sordid Lives, both the play and the TV series. With other award-winning scripts to his credit such as Southern Baptist Sissies and The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife, Del Shores is much more than his self-proclaimed “minor celebrity” when it comes to his hordes of gay (and straight) fans.  His snarly and snappy, Texas-drawling, gossip-loving characters with hearts often the size of the Lone Star State itself have become part of our own kissing cousins through the years.  And if there is anyone tonight in the New Conservatory Theatre Center audience who somehow has missed meeting the clan, that now-lucky soul will surely walk away with some newly acquired friends and family after an evening with Del and his southern folk.

For tonight, Del Shores stands before us to share Six Characters in Search of a Play, “six people I have met that inspired me but I have not found a place for them yet in my plays, film, of TV.”  From the likes of Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, some are members of his actual family; and others are due to happenstance meetings (more likely in a bar) that then became dear, long-term friends.  Throughout, Del (short for Delferd – a name his mother misspelled on the birth certificate) intermingles his own personal confessions and anecdotes with the words and personalities of the six, each of whom he becomes in person with much flair, flash, and fury.  The stories are of course hilarious, but some are also so personal to our teller that tears come to his and our eyes.  We soon discover that however weird and quirky these six are -- just like Brother Boy, Sissy, and LaVonda -- at the core these are real people not unlike someone we may hold dear in our own memory bank – especially if you are a boy from Tennessee like I!

We first meet Sarah from Harriman, Texas, “an elderly actress determined to drink and smoke herself to death before Trump got elected.”  Sarah is a “yellow dog Democrat” (meaning “she would vote for a yellow dog before any Republican”) who calls Del one day crying in between puffs on her menthol cigarette and on her inhaler to tell him she has been asked to audition for a part of the “ugliest woman alive.”  Del delights in telling about his ongoing relationship with Sarah and letting us meet her in person, with her suddenly appearing before us in her shriveled body and tightly pursed lips, sipping through a straw her ice-cold Gallo white wine while talking with a Southern accent that has to be heard to be believed.

Cigarettes and the resulting breathing maladies are a common fixture among the women we meet.  Martha is a “monkey-hating lesbian with COPD” (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) who walks up to the bar in Nashville with her oxygen tank and then excuses herself to go out and smoke a cig.  Why he knows that she hates monkeys is a part of a story involving a gay couple with their long-tailed baby named Cocky, who is supposedly a rabid (no pun intended) fan of Sordid Lives.

As the journey across the South continues, we meet Yvonne (pronounced “Y”-vonne), a vegetarian-hating waitress from Del’s hometown of Winters, Texas, where “time and hair style have stood still for decades.”  He meets Y-Vonne while going to spread the ashes of his adored Aunt Sissy, who died “of pneumonia with a nicotine patch on the back of her ear” and whose last words were “Oh shit” because he showed up at her death bed without his dog, Bitsy Mae, whom she evidently adored almost as much as him.

And then there is Jimmy (the lone man among these six), a “homophobic Mississippi redneck with latent tendencies.”  Jimmy is “one of those Southern boys that barely open their mouths” when talking.  “Seems like they are afraid a cock might fly in,” smirks our storyteller before he jumps into the fantasy tale he has created in his mind about possible back-story of the real Jimmy he once met in a parking lot.

Del takes at one point a time-out to share his family tree with names like Aunt Betsy Ruth and Uncle Humpty (who had no legs) – a tree that has off-shoots galore due to divorces, second marriages, and time spent in prison.  That leads us to meeting Aunt Bobby Sue, “a loud mouth, racist Republican with a big heart,” who always appeared in her “whore-red lipstick” with hair “somewhere between Bobbie Gentry and Priscilla Presley.”  While his mama describes Aunt Bobby Sue as “a loud mouth what-not nothing but cheap, common trash,” we learn from Del just why he loves this woman so much and keeps her memory close to his heart.

And speaking of his mama, Del introduces us to Lorraine, “a once-brilliant drama teacher who has lost her mind and is now obsessed with porn.”  While not the last of the six stories in the sequence, it is the one that stands out – both for the humorous tale of how his mama believes toward the end of her life that she is starring in a pornographic movie entitled “The Orderlies and the Elderlies” and for his heart-warming, tear-producing memories of a mother who quickly accepts her little boy’s being out and gay. 

Del Shores
As wonderful as it is to get to know all these six and many other characters that Del parades before us, the real joy of the evening is getting to know Del himself.  The intimate setting of NCTC’s third stage is a perfect one that almost feels like we are in a living room, sitting around with a friend who is telling us his life story.  When he invites us at the end to join him at the bar for a drink, there is no doubt that he is sincere and that he now sees us as much as friends as we now do him.

Rating: 4 E

Six Characters in Search of a Play ends its too-short run June 10, 2018 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.nctcsf.org or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.
(Six Characters in Search of a Play will be on stage one night only, July 22, at the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa, Sonoma.  Tickets are available at http://www.sonomaartslive.org/.

Photos by Jason Grindle


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