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Boys in white dresses: Trevor Vaughn as Ulysses Simpson Grant as Desdemona in General Desdemona.

Neither Here nor There

By James Yeara

General Desdemona

By Egan Reich, directed by Kevin McGuire, New Plays Festival, Proctors 440 Upstairs, through April 26

General Desdemona, the inaugu-ral production of “New Plays Festival” at 440 Upstairs at Proctors big box complex in Schenectady, is a new play that seems to aspire to be part Stage Beauty, Jeffrey Hatcher’s play about 17th century sexuality and politics; part Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife, based on the true story of a German transvestite; part Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner, where the dead and phantasmagorical prophesy to the historical. Stupefying scenes, lines, and images abound in General Desdemona’s two-and-a-half-hour running time.

The play opens on the U.S. Army camp in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1846, where auditions for Othello are starting. Savannah (Yvonne Perry) is being diddled onstage by Lieutenant Porter (Ben Scurria), who is in army uniform and blackface, having already been cast as Othello. Savannah moans about not being Bianca, but Desdemona; “Bianca . . . lives in a soldier town and fucks soldiers for money,” she complains in her best Southern belle, to which Porter observes, “Well you live in a soldier town and fuck soldiers for free.” “Yea-yess,” Savannah exclaims, “see it makes all the difference,” and the diddle is done.

The ghost of General Santa Anna (David Tass Rodriguez) stands center stage and whines to the audience about “the contemporary indignities my people have to endure for a driver’s license in this country,” and that “even I . . . have to speak in English.”

Ulysses Simpson Grant (Trevor Vaughn) waits to audition for the role of Desdemona, in a white, flowing skirt and black pleather bustier, having survived a hissy fit with his close friend, fellow West Point grad and Desdemona wannabe James “Pete” Longstreet (David Matranga). “Recite the speech all the perky college girls use for their auditions,” Santa Anna sneers to Grant. Grant’s resulting Desdemona prompts his commanding officer, General William Worth (Brian Massman), to state, “The Army needs more men like you,” before kissing Grant’s hand.

The black metal railings of the slightly raised platforms, where the audience of this play-within-a-play sits, ring like tubular bells before scenes; struck by cane or by hands, the railing’s vibrations startle the audience and keep its members awake. The railings, which are there for the safety of the audience members, also serve to periodically unnerve them.

General Worth, bare-chested and impossibly white, soliloquizes about scalping Indians and Indians carving white men. When Worth observes, “War is the practice of killing as many men as possible,” you can almost hear the audience think, “And acting is the practice of yelling as loud as possible.” Suddenly Worth declares, “We must become something more than men,” smears stripes of red lipstick on each cheek and one vertical red swath of lipstick down the center of his face, clips on a pearl necklace, earrings, and a black skirt, then sits downstage center and languidly sucks on his pearls.

“My structure is crumbling” Santa Anna tells the audience, and stays.

“I’ve got to speak to Pete” Grant tells the audience, and exits.

A bare-chested Longstreet and Savannah meet on a bench down center. “Take off your stockings,” Longstreet commands, “and put them on me.” Soon Longstreet is wearing not only Savannah’s stockings, but the flowing white skirt. “Am I pretty?” Longstreet asks, then answers his own question: “Lay down on top of me and ball me black and blue,” Longstreet coos to her like a drunk prom date.

Stomping. Thumping. Banging. The stage and the railings vibrate and the tiny theater echoes Santa Anna’s yell: “GO WITH GOD!” Longstreet and Grant stand back to back upstage center. Grant piggybacks Longstreet, who carries him to the floor, where they crawl toward the audience. They stand. They talk, declare, declaim, denounce. But, like true Republicans, they never confess, never apologize. Borne ever-inward, they wink out the navel’s antithesis—not from where we as humans are nurtured up to the point of birth, but from where we shit just before we, as men, die.

“I don’t stand a chance,” Santa Anna declaims as the stage goes black. And neither does the play.

Sex, Dreams and Rock & Roll

Battles of the Band

By Kevin Dobies, directed by Jonathan Whitton, New Plays Festival, Proctors 440 Upstairs, through April 26

Rob (Trevor Vaughn) loves making music and his blonde, Barbie-doll girlfriend Nathalie (Myleah Misenhimer), in that order. And there’s the rub. Battles of the Band is a breezy slice of Albany bar life for those chasing a dream. The play is a valentine to anyone who listens to the same three chords mixed muddily while sucking down cheap beer, and blackening their lungs and reddening their eyes with mentholated cigarettes while their ears throb and their pulse races . It’s a play that outlines the egos, pretensions, and small-time hopes of bar bands everywhere, even if the setting is certainly Smallbany.

The title is literal. The battles of the band are told through Rob Cantwell’s frequent soliloquies, like buzzy lead guitar solos that are more distorted vibrations than clean notes. Through intervening scenes of Rob and his best friend Mel’s (Ian Sullivan) four-piece band, Ace Bandage, playing at Shannon’s (Yvonne Perry) grungy Fort Orange Club, the battles tumble out between the characters. Rob wants fame, wants his soul, wants his woman, wants his cool job at the music store, wants to win radio station WORQ’s Battle of the Bands against his ex-girlfriend Lori’s (Reema Zaman) band, Lorilee and the Desmond, and her current poser boyfriend, Rich’s (Paul Ricciardi) boy band, the Cola Pimps, while keeping his cool. But Rob can’t always get what he wants, and that makes all the difference.

Battles of the Band is like sitting back in the shadows in a dirty bar, watching the inebriated logic and listening to the sudden ejaculations of insight of the very self-involved people trying to follow their bliss at 100 decibels. While occasional cringe-inducing lines pose as wit the way cover bands pose as artists—Rob states of WORQ, “I think the only way I could listen to the oldies is if I shoved my head back up my mother’s twat”—Battles of the Band mostly hits the right notes and maintains a quick rhythm. And when Nathalie no longer swallows Rob’s guiding philosophy, but spits it into his face during the play’s penultimate scene—“Everything is fine so long as you come first”—the kids are all right. Their heads aren’t winking out of their rosebuds again. It’s only rock & roll, but . . . I like it. In a world where corporations use the arts as one more cheaply produced façade in a flashy tourist trap, at least Battles of the Band’s heart is in the right place.

—James Yeara

 


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