Going to Straight at Attic Rep feels like having an intimate conversation with a good friend and getting to hear him tell a really funny story filled with intrigue and private revelations. The spotlight remains on its single actor, David Schmader, who for one hour and forty-five minutes performs a confessional monologue describing Religious Right attempts to convert him straight. Schmader’s investigation into this phenomenon began after experiencing an epiphany that gay pride is the necessary corollary to gay shame.
The 41-year-old Schmader, lightly bearded and wearing round spectacles, looks like somebody’s handsome, progressive uncle. With a casual, affable approach, he addresses the audience directly, sharing his experiences at religious support group meetings and a Texas retreat.
Schmader begins and ends his undercover investigation at the urinal, using a red upholstered pew for the location. Humor offsets the potentially discomforting experience of hearing Schmader’s confessional scoop, and Schmader keeps his thoughtful, dialectical perspective accessible with sharp wit.
Straight, which premiered in Seattle in 1999, reemerges as part of AtticRep’s fifth season dedicated to “provoking dialogue.” Actual dialogue with the audience didn’t occur during the production, but engagement is implied through the monologue’s conversational tone.
The set suggests a cross between a church and a conservative grandparent’s living room. Oriental rugs and wooden furniture exude the disarming hominess that is attempted by church common rooms. Such atmospheres, designed to set parishioners at ease, are also the sites of such conversion attempts.
The only spectacle is Schmader himself, who masters the art of characterization, stepping into the shoes of people he meets along the way. His voice changes almost imperceptibly; he achieves transformation through movement and language. Spotlights help to define moments when Schmader transitions into a new character.
A writer for alternative Seattle newsweekly The Stranger, Schmader goes undercover as Nick Adams, a name he lifted from the “earnestly straight” Ernest Hemingway. At the Metanoya Ministry support group, he meets Scott, a 35-year-old ex-gay virgin, and Beau, who sifts through a disappointingly boring laundry list of weekly woes. As a form of resistance, Schmader resorts to mentally replacing Jesus’s name with Björk’s. Snippets of her songs play overhead, prompting laughter at this jarring substitution. Schmader describes the Bible, filled with details about how to prepare animals for cooking and sacrificing and how to cleanse menstrual blood, as a “Martha Stewart Living BC.” Later he meets Dr. Kraft, a psychiatrist specializing in conversion therapy through yoga; Schmader expresses his doubt that any gay man can become straight by wearing a leotard.
The culmination occurs at a religious retreat in his home state of Texas. Straight bunkmates, who are like “14th century missionaries who dared to dance with the lepers,” play touch football and have heart-to-heart conversations with their gay counterparts. Schmader’s bunkmate is a Houston family man named Ted, a babe whose “foxiness is undermined when he opens his mouth.”
By this point, Schmader’s resistance has escalated to getting heavily stoned. His dramatic foil is Allison, a “big old dyke” who is “newly vandalized” by her makeover. Allison confesses to Schmader that she has yet to feel born again, but that she will sacrifice her homosexuality to walk with Jesus. The last night of the retreat features a “Celebration Showcase,” in which Schmader plays the guitar and sings a bible verse that lists tips for identifying leprosy. Yet this move, which he had hoped would be “as subversive and offensive as Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ,” is met with only polite applause.
While Schmader softens the political edge of his account with humor, his account raises consciousness through his observations. Religious conservatives tell their gay subjects that same-sex lust is rooted in envy, that they will spend their lives chasing shadows and end up “alone and unfulfilled.” Their promises to gay men that they may someday have a wife sound like the promise of “giving a college grad a Lexus.”
The experience is a roller coaster escapade of critical thinking, a woozy challenge to stay grounded amidst the confusion of differing ideologies. The value of the entire experience comes from how Schmader models for the audience a wise, open-minded approach to difference, assuring the rest of us that we are not alone toiling beneath the daily barrage of questions as to how we shape and maintain our most fundamental beliefs. •
Straight: A Conversion Comedy
One Trinity Place
Thru Dec. 19