Contradict This Review: “Stonewall 50” Birthday, Funeral and Trial for Walt Whitman

“Contradict This! A Birthday Funeral for Heroes,” by the freewheeling Philadelphia-based group called  The Bearded Ladies Cabaret, is being presented as part of La MaMa’s celebration this month of Stonewall 50. And, it’s true that, in the bouncy first song (accompanied by tuba and accordion!), we’re encouraged to sing a chorus of “He was gay, gay, gay, gay” by the band. We’re told later that the band is called “the multitunes. They contain multi-tunes.” The show, as some of you may have just figured out, is really about Walt Whitman.

Yes, the poet was gay, gay, gay and his 200thbirthday occurred just a day before the start of this 50thannual Gay Pride Month. But not that much about “Contradict This!” is explicitly connected to what 50 years ago was called gay liberation. Only occasionally do cast members directly celebrate his queerness: “I don’t know who gave me Leaves of Grass when I was 14,” Pax Ressler says, “but they must have known that I needed it. I was desperate for queer role models, and Whitman’s poems were some of the only queer texts that wouldn’t draw too much suspicion. I devoured the Calamus poems….”

“Contradict This!” starts as a birthday party with a cake the width of the stage, covered with bunting,  and a huge unfinished portrait of Walt Whitman. The performers recite some of Whitman’s poetry and some of their own in the style of Whitman’s poetry, until they come upon some of Whitman’s surprisingly narrow-minded positions and bigoted remarks (“That quote wasn’ t in my complete Whitman,” one performer says.)

The show then turns into a trial. Eventually, Whitman takes the stand:

Judge: You stand accused of nationalism, racism, misogyny, and manspreading. What have you to say?

Whitman: Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself…

Prosecutor:  Ok, I’m muting you

 

Worked into the show is a discussion of some serious and interesting questions about art and artists, using  Whitman as the launching off point: Can you judge somebody from the past by current standards? Can you separate the art from the artist who created it? Can you take the bad with the good?

But whatever the underlying intelligence, what’s on the surface of “Contradict Myself!” suggests a vibe of playful anarchy, like the Marx Brothers or the Merry Prankster.  (e.g. the absurdly dressed judge with a big gavel says “Order in the court”and people give their lunch orders.) This can be fun (if you’re in the right mood) but such an approach is in danger of sliding into incoherence and amateurishness, especially among the members of the cast who are less experienced actors.

Luckily the show features some two dozen original songs, most of which are tuneful, and presented by some fine singers and musicians. A couple of the songs have lyrics by Whitman; most of the words are by various company members. A few jump into the fray,  stating their arguments efficiently and melodically

Standout singer Veronica Chapman-Smith, portraying the judge,  uses her operatic voice for a song entitled “The Judge’s Song of Recusal” with music by Pax Ressler and lyrics by Chapman-Smith and the show’s director John Jarboe.  Near the beginning, the lyrics include:

I sing the body of dead white men electric
keeping their songs alive, like Puccini’s “Butterfly”—ah!
and Wagner, can you believe it, even Wagner, horns and all!
he was a nazi, and we all know it

And then a smart, layered last line

I have too many trials of my own to be your judge
I recuse

Contradict This! A Birthday Funeral for Heroes

Director: John Jarboe Written By* John Jarboe and the Ensemble with Mary Tuomanen Music Supervisor/Band Leader: Heath Allen Choreography: Jumatatu Poe Performed by: Fernando Contreras**, Daniel de Jesús, Elah Perelman, Emily Bate, Jackie Soro, Pax Ressler, and Veronica Chapman-Smith **Fernando Contreras is playing a role originated by Anthony Martinez Briggs
Running time: Two hours including intermission
Tickets: $25; students/seniors: $20
Contradict This is on stage through June 29th, 2019

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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