Thursday, July 22, 2004

Gay Paris comes to San Diego with ‘Paris Commune’

by Charlene Baldridge

Steven Cosson has the most incredible blue eyes ever seen. Michael Friedman can’t talk without waving his hands, likely because they’re normally employed at the piano, which he’s played for as long as he can remember.

The two openly gay New York residents sat outdoors at La Jolla Playhouse on a recent warm day, enjoying the shade and shooting the breeze with this Gay & Lesbian Times writer about their musical, Paris Commune, which Cosson directs in the Playhouse’s adventurous Page to Stage workshop July 27-Aug. 15 at the Mandell Weiss Forum Studio

Cosson lived for three years in Hillcrest while getting his UCSD MFA in directing, which he completed in 1999. Friedman, whose droll music is employed in the Playhouse’s current production of Suitcase or, those that resemble flies from a distance, attended Harvard University where he majored in the history of literature. Friedman hasn’t been to Hillcrest – yet.

“We met right after I graduated from UCSD,” said Cosson. “I was directing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. I did a production of William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, which takes place in a honky-tonk and could have a lot of music in it. So Michael came on board and adapted a lot of period songs that really helped underscore and structure the piece. We got on so well we’ve been working together ever since.”

Cosson was the impetus and Friedman “in on the ground floor” in the formation of a New York-based theatrical group called The Civilians, of which Cosson is the artistic director.

“We have a desk,” says Cosson.

“A fairly recent phenomenon,” says Friedman.

Cosson continues: “We have a desk and a filing cabinet and some shelves and a computer and a website.”

Friedman interjects: “The website actually predated the desk.”

The Civilians was named by Time Out New York as one of 25 up-and-comers and recently received a prestigious Village Voice Obie Grant. The Civilians have created four original shows – Canard, Canard, Goose?; Nobody’s Lunch; Gone Missing (recently taken to London and touring Southern California in spring 2005); and Paris Commune, which Cosson and Friedman have been working on for about two years.

Paris Commune tells the story, not surprisingly, of the Paris Commune, its turbulent attempt to transform society, and the 1871 Paris uprising in which 25,000 people died.

“This is Paris Commune’s second workshop production,” says Cosson. Following the initial workshop, the pair did substantial rewrites and since beginning rehearsals in La Jolla, they’ve cut and shaped the piece.

“Our main interest is really getting this show in front of an audience,” says Cosson. “The opportunity to do rewrites while the show is in performance is really rare.

“The whole show is about a performance. It’s in this cabaret theatre style. It’s very direct and the audience is a big part of it. Mostly, we’re trying as best we can to figure it out while we’re still in rehearsal and waiting to see how it goes.”

Among the characters appearing in the cabaret is The Opera Singer, portrayed by Canadian soprano Stacey Fraser who recently completed a two-year program with the San Diego Opera Ensemble. Bruce McKenzie, a founder of Sledgehammer Theatre who most recently appeared at the Playhouse in Charles Mee’s Wintertime, portrays a radical and historical revolutionary named Pere Duchene, who wrote and published political tracts.

“Then there’s the female star we based on several cabaret singers of the era,” Cosson said. “We call her Mignon and she’s played by Aysan Celik, who sings and dances and changes outfits a lot. Pere Duchene is the impulse to the political and she’s the impulse towards just entertaining the audience as much as possible.”

Dale Soules takes on the persona of a great cabaret singer, La Bordas, who was, according to Cosson, the Edith Piaf of the era. UCSD students Brad Fleischer, Geno Monteiro, Brian Slaten, Katie Sigismund, Andrew Smith and Lisa Velten play multiple roles as the story of the Paris Commune is told.

Friedman has underscored the text with period music from ballet and opera. Fraser sings arias from Bizet, Offenbach and Gounod operas. Additionally, says Friedman, “There are a bunch of the songs written by two guys, Jean Baptiste Clement and Eugene Pothier, who were actually members of the governing council of the commune. Pothier actually writes the Communist ‘Internationale’, which ends up having massive history in the 20th century as the anthem of communism.”

One of the main purposes of The Civilians is to create original work that is connected to and inspired by the contemporary landscape.

“We wish we could be showing you a much more gay and lesbian play,” says Friedman.

“We’re definitely the first gay playwrights to write a play about the Paris Commune,” says Cosson. “Most all the plays about the Commune were written by leftist playwrights with a primary interest in the events of the Commune. All those plays were written at a time in which the legacy of that sort of revolutionary socialism was still in existence, so the questions – why did the Commune fail? And how can future revolutions succeed? – were much more pressing.”

The question of whether Friedman and Cosson are “out” is greeted by hilarious laughter. Cosson says that The Civilians is known as New York’s straightest theater company and he’s not kidding.

“But by mistake,” says Friedman. “We keep recruiting new men and new women and they constantly are straight, almost all of them.”

Cosson says, “We did a little affirmative action and got a couple of gay men on board, but they’re few and far between.”

Asked if they are partnered, Cosson replies, “We both work all the time and we’re totally single.”

Friedman says that even when they are involved with others they see much more of each other than whoever it is they’re going out with.

The two gay Paris Commune cohorts will conduct forums following every performance. Half jokingly, they say the main purpose of the forums is to meet potential dates. These guys have been working way too long and hard.