Theater Review: 'Queen of the Night,' Dorset Theatre Festival | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Theater Review: 'Queen of the Night,' Dorset Theatre Festival

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Published August 25, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.


Leland Fowler, left, and Danny Johnson - COURTESY OF JOEY MORO
  • Courtesy Of Joey Moro
  • Leland Fowler, left, and Danny Johnson

The play Queen of the Night, by queer Black playwright travis tate, is a conventionally heartwarming story of reconciliation between a father and son, but it's told in a convention-defying style that stretches theatrical norms. Dorset Theatre Festival is presenting the world premiere at the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester.

The situation is nothing special. Stephen and his grown son, Ty, go on a camping trip in a state park in Texas. Ty is dressed for the city in sunglasses, kinky orange short-shorts and a slinky tank top. He's gay and Black, and he opens the play with a short monologue about loving the outdoors. But everything he describes, including the possibility of encountering a bear, sounds like what he wants most to avoid.

Stephen has the settled demeanor and slightly slower pace of a man in his late fifties. A tuft of gray hair peeks from under his sun hat; his backpack is filled with well-tended gear. The camping trip is designed to distract Stephen on the weekend that his former wife, and Ty's mother, remarries. Though the couple's split is not described in detail, Stephen admits to an anger problem and tells Ty he has been working on it with a therapist.

The story is unremarkable but takes a curious approach to theatrical illusion. Stylistically, the script pairs naturalistic dialogue, including sitcom-like snappy rejoinders, with reflective monologues and soliloquies.

Perhaps because tate is both a poet and a playwright, Queen blends the lyrical with the mundane. While the juxtaposition is sometimes dissonant, the net effect is an enlargement of expression rather than a contrast.

Just as the style of speech varies, so does the play's realism. While the play is performed on an outdoor stage, with black night as a constant backdrop, events at the campsite occur at all hours of the day. Lighting designer Yuki Nakase Link sometimes approximates natural light and sometimes paints the trees with surrealistic bright colors. From mystical moods created by bold lighting effects and haze, the play veers back to standard illumination and realistic gestures.

Scenic designers Christopher and Justin Swader cover the stage with leaves and dirt and employ what appear to be real trees, sometimes gorgeously silhouetted by the lights. Lit wildly, they're stylized meta-trees; lit naturally, they create a convincing landscape.

The company's decision to perform the play outdoors was based on COVID-19 safety precautions. But putting actors and audience under the sky adds a wonderful, startling dynamic to a story about people camping outdoors. The night, the air, the cooking fire and — viewers be warned — the mosquitoes are real.

Time and change are expressed unconventionally in the play. Many actions, such as setting up a tent and retrieving camping gear, occur in real time, even to the point of tedium. Scenes last longer than usual, without the usual time compression of drama.

At first, it's a delightful surprise to watch undramatic action unfold in silence. How real, how simple, how true it seems. But audiences tend to demand meaning from a play, if not entertainment, and the time it takes to get binoculars out of a backpack feels wasted when no dialogue or consequences accompany it.

Still, there is beauty in simple actions that lack overt dramatic significance. Viewers are asked to pay attention in much the way we perceive nature itself: not as a show performed but as reality unfolding. Director Raz Golden builds scenes of silence and uninteresting physical action, placing the play outside the conventions of drama.

As a result of Golden's directing approach and the script itself, the characters don't undergo typical heightened moments of realization. Their changes are subtle, interior ones. In Ty's case, he moves almost imperceptibly from being a wisecracking millennial disapproving of his old-fogy dad to an anxious man trying to conceal his unease to, finally, a son willing to connect with his father. Stephen acknowledges feeling proud of his son, while Ty only remembers his dad's shame that he was gay.

We never see the triggers for these changes, which drama usually supplies through events. The most graceful part of the play is how small bits of new behavior don't seem to add up to anything until, at last, they do.

Would that tate had stayed the course of subtlety to the end. Unfortunately, he creates a physical crisis for the two men that strives to be thrilling but stalls at the comedic.

Bears roam this park. Three times we hear a bear's growl, and three times Stephen frantically beats two pots together while Ty unconvincingly brandishes a can of bear spray. Golden stages each encounter nearly identically, never organizing the action to indicate whether the men can even see the bear. All they do is panic and turn in circles.

Injecting a little comedy wouldn't be bad, but the final bear fluster is supposed to kick off a dramatic outburst in which both men admit their love for each other. A play that was proceeding quietly and lyrically briefly becomes a farce. The deep question of masculinity is lost in silliness.

Leland Fowler, as Ty, and Danny Johnson, as Stephen, have the delicate job of playing some scenes with rich, direct contact with each other, and others as men who are not only estranged but untroubled by their distance. The play is so stylistically variable that only the actors can supply its human grounding, and Fowler and Johnson succeed. They create the core drama tenderly and insightfully.

Does this play work? As an experiment in stage silence, perhaps yes. As a heightened theatrical situation, no. A reconciliation story is gratifying, but this one happens to characters who remain shallow to us because so little occurs.

The writing is never quite extraordinary enough to take flight or plain enough to make the story gritty and true. Some viewers may find the slow pace meditative; others will consider it frustrating. Yet the constant glide between the real and the poetic is an experience in itself.

Queen of the Night, by travis tate, directed by Raz Golden, produced by Dorset Theatre Festival at Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester. Through September 4: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. $45.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Night Vision"