Teddy Ferrara is not a surface play. Which makes it probably a difficult one to review, and even absorb on first seeing it. I especially think it will be difficult for audiences and critics who do not have a nuanced understanding of the myriad parts of the LGBTQ movement. But the work of a playwright is not to dumb down a subject matter, so that's why I liked the work.
Goodman Theatre commissioned Teddy Ferrara, by Christopher Shinn, and I commend them for the various groundbreaking aspects of the work. It features a multi-racial, multi-gender castqueers playing queers on stage is actually unusual at mainstream theaters even in 2013. We have the first open transgender actor (Jax Jackson) on the Goodman's stage, and he gets to play a transgender character.
The play starts out as a "ripped from the headlines" story about a teenager who committed suicide in the previous academic year. We slowly learn more about the young man, including that he may have been bisexual or gay. That previous suicide is the backdrop of the action, framing the current discussions of what the school needs to do for LGBTQs on campus now. There is the gay activist (Gabe, played by Liam Benzvi), his unethical boyfriend Drew (Adam Poss), a non-gay-but-maybe-bisexual best friend Tim (Josh Salt), a feminist professor (Kelli Simpkins) and other characters filling out the highly charged atmosphere.
These other personalities include Teddy Ferrara, a pixie-like Ryan Heindl who is amazing to watch on stage, whether alone or surrounded by other actors. He has such a presence I could see him capturing the audience's attention in a one-man show. He is empowered in his sexuality (online) and treated with disdain by other gay men on campus (in person).
As directed by Evan Cabnet, the actors truly shine in their roles. But what about the play itself? My main complaint is that it needs some cutting, which is often true of world premieres. But I also fear that even LGBTQ audiences will be baffled at its complexity without proper context. I say this because I have covered the issue of suicide for a long time, and have learned that there are many issues behind each completed suicide.
Because of the positive move of mainstream media paying more attention to bullying and its connections to suicide, there is often a simplistic analysis that LGBTQ suicides are always based on bullying. Yet we know that plenty of kids attempt suicide who are not bullied, and that many who are bullied do not kill themselves. The Rutgers University suicide of Tyler Clementi is the very loose basis for the play's genesis. That case, too, was very complex. Which is why Teddy Ferrera may be difficult for audiences, LGBTQ and straight, to grasp. There are both good and bad gay characters, and good and bad straight ones. No one is a clear hero, and no one a clear villain.
Good plays, like life, don't come wrapped in a bow with easy solutions or one-dimensional heroes. I recommend this play for audiences of all backgrounds, but I also recommend some reading prior to attending. It may help audiences better understand that the LGBTQ community is not monolithic, is not all tragedy, all victim, all anything. It is just as vastly varied as the straight world. And just as flawed.
For more on the issue of suicide and LGBTQ youth, see www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/LGBT-youth-suicide-reports-show-need-for-more-studies/31546.html .
See www.goodmantheatre.org/season/teddy-ferrara/ .