“Stonewall” at Benchmark Theatre Co.

STONEWALL – Written by Neil Truglio, Samwell Rose, Frankie Lee and the cast of STONEWALL; Directed by Neil Truglio.  Produced by Benchmark Theatre Company  (1560 Teller, Lakewood) through July 1.  Tickets available at 303-519-9059 or benchmarktheatre.com.

I have to congratulate the committed board and company members of Benchmark.  When they can’t find a play on the subject they want to highlight, they write their own.  They did this last year with OUR AMERICAN COUSIN; A NATION DIVIDED about the divisive turn politics has taken.  This year, led by company member Neil Truglio, they have gone back in history to look at the start of the LGBTQ movement in 1969 at the raid on the well-known gay Stonewall Bar.  They have found vintage footage that illustrates the common misconceptions about homosexuality prevalent at the time and investigated the literature and interviews from the era to create an authentic picture of the birth of a movement.  Particularly amusing was TV footage of interviews with “noted” experts regarding the home life circumstances that led to the “creation” of a homosexual.

A gigantic cast of 24 talented people work together to portray narrators, bar patrons, advocates of the movement, journalists, cops and politicians.  The theatrical evening sort of starts before it starts with the cast arriving at intervals to enter the “bar,” to gather around a table to plan, to socialize on Christopher Street outside the bar, all in sotto voce so the audience can tell there is conversation but not actually hear it.  Then the narrators – Dan O’Neill, Barbara Porreca, and Verl Hite – start the story in the current year, then take us back to when it started.  Even when a group of people are working toward common goals, there is, of course, differences of opinion about how to achieve those goals.  So, it was no surprise to see leaders in the Mattachine Society, a group devoted to achieving equality for gays, fighting among themselves about the most prudent method for realizing their goals.  The baby steps of the movement were also covered by the Village Voice, a neighborhood newspaper which also had internal conflicts over how the building tensions should be covered.  All sides are examined, even the police’s point of view, until it leads up to the night of the riot itself when, for the first time, the patrons of the bar stood up for themselves and fought back.  Their actions reverberated across the country, encouraging other groups quietly seeking the same acceptance to begin their own protests.  A summation of the continued lives of the participants from that fateful night and an examination of how far the country has progressed and how far we still have to go creates an appropriate epilogue for the evening.

The research that went to creating this educational and entertaining evening of theatre is truly impressive.  With a slight bias toward the gay point of view, the reporting seems balanced and true to life as the people on stage discover new truths about themselves in front of an audience.  At the same time, as the audience is engaged in watching, they are also engaged in absorbing.  The high points and basic truths of the events are expressed with passion by the narrators.  This group operates as a true ensemble with all contributing equally to the overall picture.  But standout performances happen even within a powerful ensemble.  Corey Exline takes on the role of editor of the Village Voice determined to present the events unfolding in a well-balanced non-judgmental manner.  Caden Pazo has a delightful turn as a drunken street soldier.  Johnathan Underwood and Dante J. Finley represent well the trans members of the movement . . . and look hot while doing it.

All in all, this is a fast-moving important production that needs to be seen.  A warning, however:  there are long strobe light segments used as a way of conveying the chaos of the riot.  For people who have the not uncommon reaction of migraine headaches to prolonged flashing lights, this can be a minor problem.  Just close your eyes and listen to the chaos instead of inflicting pain upon yourself.A WOW factor of 8!!

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