Friday, June 24, 2011

Theater Deja Vu

Last summer, I saw the play Veritas by Stan Richardson at the Fringe Festival, and it introduced me to a shocking piece of Harvard history, where students were interrogated about their sexuality. Unnatural Acts has a different director, writer, and cast, but it felt like I had already seen the play. Two plays with the same source material are obviously going to have similarities, but it is interesting that the plays resemble each other stylistically as well. This is an unfortunate coincidence, as a look at the timeline on the play's website indicates that Tony Speciale first got the idea in 2003 and started developing the play in 2006.

Unnatural Acts was directed by Speciale, who wrote the play along with members of the Plastic Theatre. In 1920, Cyril Wilcox, Harvard class of '22 committed suicide at his home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Cyril's brother brought two letters to the Dean which referred to Cyril's homosexuality and other students who might have been leading a similar lifestyle. From there, the Court was created to question students, getting more and more names throughout the investigation. Most of the students were judged guilty and forced to leave not only Harvard, but Cambridge altogether. If you would like to know more about the history before seeing the play, the Harvard Crimson article by Amit R. Paley that first broke the story is available here.

Unnatural Acts uses Shakespeare monologues, overlapping scenes, even a choreographed scene that owes a debt to "Bitch of Living" from Spring Awakening, but as was the case with Veritas, some of these artistic flourishes distance the audience from the characters. Still, Unnatural Acts is an engaging evening of theater with a talented young cast (some of whom are co-authors), the standout being Nick Westrate as Ernest Roberts, the flamboyant son of a politician who hosts parties in his room, Perkins 28. It would be easy to play this role one-note, but Westrate finds the anger and pain underneath Roberts's charisma.

It's horrible to think that this is a true story, but it's important that it continues to be told, so that history doesn't repeat itself. Whether or not you've seen Veritas, but especially if you haven't, Unnatural Acts is a play worth checking out.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus

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