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OUR LADY

nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
August 13, 2012

For its young, queer and queer-friendly audience, James Fluhr's first FringeNYC performance evoked tears and cheers. An emotionally charged response to the increase of suicides among queer youth, this dark fairy-tale/drag extravaganza recounts living a gay boyhood amongst small-town intolerance, losing a first love to suicide, confronting homophobic hatred, and discovering the inner hero/ine—a fierce goddess called "Our Lady." Fluhr and his production team deserve props for creating a theatrical experience that holds us enthralled much the time, but those of us familiar with queer/gay performance prior to 2000 may find the ground familiar and the ideas naïve.

The in-your-face experience starts with booming disco music as we enter the theatre; audience members are selected (or directed) to sit on stage, and some participation is requested. As a performer, Fluhr conveys an attitude of importance and uses his body and voice with dynamic expression. Sleek and pretty, he struts and poses on the stage with an armor of fierceness that covers the wounds he will share in the show. Fluhr is his own director, but his talents as a designer come through the strongest. He creates an impressive spectacle with modest resources—a chair and trunk, movable lamps, an installation of abstract sculptures, an omnipresent soundscape, elaborate costumes—perhaps the splashiest production I've ever seen at FringeNYC.

While the show's bold strokes and stagecraft may pack a wallop, it slacks on character, language, and storytelling. Fluhr aims to move us with a horror story of homophobic prejudice—characterized as a hateful "Monster" represented by frightening voiceovers and lighting effects. In response to this figure of oppression, Fluhr conjures and ultimately embodies his own icon of gay power, "Our Lady"—a drag creature who owes her existence to the artistry of Tina Turner, Cher, and of course, our Lady Gaga. Fluhr's message—gay men need to find our own fierce strength within—is important but not original. Who could disagree with his despair at the rise in teen suicides caused by bullying and gay bashing? Still the barrage of old audio /video newscasts, without exploring the real stories of the names he drops, feels heavy-handed and a tad manipulative.

The jumble of a script seems to be influenced by Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Sunset Boulevard, Tim Miller, Taylor Mac, and touches of Southern Gothic. Fluhr lip-syncs lyrics from pop divas to drive home the message of ferocity and empowerment. As a whole, the work feels derived from many familiar inspirations without a voice of its own. The monologues—especially one by Fluhr's oversexed Southern mother—tend to wander, repeat, and outlast their welcome. In a rare quiet moment, Fluhr confesses that his "Monster" is inspired by his own father, who rejected his son's drag and threatened to stop paying his college tuition. The moment is a sad reminder of the obstacles gay youth continue to face. It also illuminates how close Fluhr is to his own suffering and why the piece, at times, feels like an art-therapy project.

Attention must be paid to the talented design team, mostly Fluhr's Boston University BFA classmates: Dan Alaimo (lights), Ameera Ali (costumes) Adrienne Carlile (sets) and Liz Walbridge (sound) all bring their best to make the show dazzle. What's needed is a dramaturg to focus the text, a director to shape the ideas, and perhaps some time and experience to help this fervent young artist find his own voice.