On a hot midsummer’s night, two young couples stumble into a fairy forest and play out the mischief and trickery of knavish sprites and spirits, only to wake the next morning as though it were all a dream. It’s a tale you’ve heard before, though you wouldn’t know it after walking out of Derek Van Barham’s BITE: A Pucking Queer Cabaret, currently playing at Mary’s Attic. As part of Pride Films and Plays 2016 season, BITE is the second to last production on PFP’s roster.
At times sensitive and sincere, Van Barham’s glittering adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is every bit like stepping into a fairy ring. Climbing the stairs to Mary’s Attic doesn’t fully prepare you for the tinsel curtain or the purple glow of the stage, but once the fairies start appearing at the bar, at your tables, and (depending on your luck) on your lap, there’s no question that you’re in for something special. Though immersive is perhaps not the right word for BITE, it doesn’t discourage participation, and there are plenty of opportunities to get a piece of the mischief.
Ruled and riveted by Raymond K. Cleveland’s Titania and Kevin Webb’s Oberon, and guided by Nathan Maurice Cooper’s put-upon Puck, the night boasts a fantastic array of music and dance. Puck and the spirits draw a picture of a queer world unbalanced on the holiest holiday as a result of King Oberon and Queen Titania being on the outs again, and the night doesn’t get any slower. Vocal performances by every member of the cast, accompanied and directed by the huge talent of Jeff Bouthiette, fill the rainbow-colored, disco-speckled walls of Mary’s Attic with new and old pop/rock hits. As queer a cabaret as there ever was, dance performances by the attending sprites played by Jacob McKenzie Gilchrist, Kathleen Hoil, David Mor and Jordan Shomer draw you into the revelry and rivalry of a midsummer fairy night out.
More than just vibrant hues and pounding bass, Cleveland’s Titania reminds us that all that fabulous can take a toll on a heart, and that being a fairy has always meant finding a light in the darkness. Whether confronting the un-reality of an aging, changing relationship, or looking back on queer history in the U.S., Cleveland and Webb do not disappoint. Though Van Barham’s focus may shift unexpectedly after Puck’s first scene, the audience is never left too long without a fairy hand to guide them. As the lovers make their entrances, each of them with an explosive talent of their own, whatever part of the bard’s script was left un-stretched gets flexible real fast. From Jennifer Ledesma and Melanie Vitaterna’s killer vocals, Caitlin Aase’s spectacular burlesque, and Will Kadza’s sad-sweet straight guy, these four accomplish a faithful portrayal of young and learning love.
Camp in the best way, BITE offers queer audiences a world of their own, where nature is femme, gender is fluid and giggling, and where gossip and glitter is required. Van Barham presents queer love and kinship as complicated, sometimes tenuous, but open, accepting and free. Queer love is elevated and heightened by ritual and celebration, and introspection is prized above ego. However, despite this rosy tint, there are a few moments where one might look around and wonder why everyone is laughing. Flashes of what may be bi-phobia and trans-misogyny interrupt an otherwise happy fête, stereotypes and weird genital humor reminding us that ignorance can bury itself inside anyone.
And for the straight folks in the audience, BITE is a wild romp in the woods, an invitation to dance, and laugh and sing, and maybe learn something too. The show runs at Mary’s Attic above Hamburger Mary’s, 5400 N. Clark St., until August 18. Tickets range from $20-$30 and can be found online or by calling 1-800-737-0984. Happy Midsummer!