“ALTARED” STATES: The State of Marriage

By Andrea Braun, Theatre Arts Correspondent

Sell-out crowds are “getting on the bus” at the Regional Arts Center for a comedy-drama-musical about gay couples riding what has commonly become known as the “Show Me Marriage Equality Bus” to Iowa to be legally wed. Well, legal in Iowa anyway. In Missouri? Nope.

Joan Lipkin includes in her program notes that she became interested in writing a play about same-sex marriage, and that her interest intensified when California voters overturned legalized gay marriage in that state (as have, the play tells us, Maine and Hawaii). Will the law endure in Iowa? No one knows, but that’s not stopping people from heading to the land where the tall corn grows to get hitched, and The State of Marriage is their story.

Director Lipkin and writing partner (and assistant director and choreographer) J.T. Ricroft demonstrate that getting married is much more than just a social ritual to those to whom it is denied. Even though it began as a means of barter and a way to control women (wait until you see Theresa Masters as a cow!), marriage has evolved. Over time, the ceremony has come to represent both a commitment of love and a guarantee of certain basic rights no couple should be denied. Among these are adoption, hospital visitation, death benefits, medical insurance—according to the play, 1,138 rights gay couples cannot exercise that straight couples take for granted.

The loosely constructed plot is based on the true story of Ed Reggi and Scott Emmanuel who arranged the first bus trip to marry in Iowa over a year ago. Other couples who made the journey are represented by Sally Eaton and Lynda Levy Clark, Masters and Sara Hamilton and Carl Overly and Troy Turnipseed. Rabbi Appel (a Susan Talve doppelganger played serenely by Alice Kinsella) is also along to perform the ceremonies. A heterosexual generic “Bride” and “Groom” (Laura Coppinger, Mike Van Allen) whose “wedding” is disrupted as the play begins are the “Brad and Janet” of the piece, the innocents who make a symbolic journey to understanding. From the way the Bride sheds the skirt that has hobbled her throughout the proceedings so far to suggestively dance around the Groom near the end, they’ve also been energized, as well as enlightened by the experience. It’s a very funny moment.

The Bride and Groom’s wedding scene is preceded by a poignant prologue in which five-year-old Jamie (Chris Brenner) is playing with a bride’s garter. He thinks it’s very pretty, but he’s confused when the off-stage voice of his aunt tells him it’s for girls only and someday he’ll meet a girl and fall in love, but he’s not so sure about that. Not one bit. The show is nicely rounded off when Brenner is the last to exit the stage and once again, picks up the garter.

Three bridesmaids enter to begin the conventional wedding, but they are hardly conventional themselves. Garbed in garish turquoise ensembles, Hamilton and Masters come first, but Bridesmaid Number One (and our spirit guide, bus driver and force of nature) is Dieta Pepsi a.k.a. Leon Braxton, Jr., St. Louis’s favorite drag queen. And when Dieta talks, you better listen, and listen good. She takes center stage for a trio on “Single Ladies” (and Carl Overby also contributes a “stripped down” take on Beyoncé later).

The Leviticus Limbo, styled as a TV game show, complete with hyper host Troy Turnipseed and the Bride and Groom as the “contestants” is a hoot, but it also sets up a lesson for us. The rabbi explains that two men lying together is only “unnatural” if the men are heterosexual. If they are homosexual, then it is their nature. Several other outdated Leviticus taboos are debunked, as well, such as the prohibition against mixing fabrics. My favorite line in the show has to do with material, in fact: “Flannel is never the answer.”

There are plenty of lumps in the throat that arise amidst the jaunty soundtrack and comic sketches. Robert Miller (Brenner) a St. Louis police officer was recently killed in the line of duty, and not only were his spouse (Turnipseed) and son left without benefits, they weren’t even mentioned in the obituary. When the couples exchange brief vows, all are touching, and their first dance is enhanced by a live performance by Summer Osborne with “You Are So Beautiful” (each show features a different local cabaret singer).

The set is surrounded by donated bridesmaid’s dresses hung from high on the walls, and it’s just as hideous as it sounds. Lipkin mentions the role of Facebook in putting the production together in her welcome speech, and the call for donations of dresses went far afield. One was even sent from Oklahoma. A few bridal gowns hang in front. The long, narrow RAC space is used to good effect as it has yellow highway lines taped on it, so the “road to matrimony” is never far from our minds. When Dieta brings out the “Magic Bus” (the song is used to introduce the show, as well) the riders mime the bumpy trip. This is all done in one day, so they spend nine hours on the road for this special moment, and they’re all glad they did.

It’s hard to write a show that has such a strong pedagogical slant and make it fun, but Lipkin and Ricroft mostly succeed. They know who their audience is, and that it’s likely if you’re willing to see this show, you support its message. But Lipkin asks that we go out and spread the word to others. These are certainly voices that should, no make that MUST, be heard. And there’s wedding cake for all present, which is both a potent symbol and a darn good dessert.

Other notable credits go to the dramaturg Susan Block. Angela Grewe created the clever costumes (with Lipkin). Set and lights are by Patrick Huber.
The State of Marriage runs through June 20, 2010 at the Regional Arts Center. You may visit www.stlas.org. for information. To learn more about the “Show Me Marriage Equality Bus,” resources may be found at www.showmenohate.com.

Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 and PlaybackSTL.