All signs were pointing to a lousy evening of theater, even before the curtain came up on White Byson Theater Company's production of Remember My Name. The show's publicist phoned me at 7 a.m. the day before, to ask that I not review the show never a good sign. When I ignored the request and showed up on opening night, the performance had been canceled. At the following night's performance, director Mario Magana made a pre-curtain speech explaining that the show we were about to see was both funny and sad, and instructing us to laugh at the funny parts. Bad move.
By intermission, I'd found things to like about this uneven production, although I had to look pretty hard. Amateurish acting further hindered David Lemos' scrawny script, and Magana's blocking is repetitive and often mundane. Still, at some point on opening night, all this mediocrity fused into an interesting whole; the cast hit a stride that elevated the material and made it almost entertaining.
Remember My Name is an apocryphal tale of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a project founded by activist Cleve Jones in 1985 as a tribute to victims of the epidemic. Lemos juxtaposes a revisionist history of how the Quilt came to be (the characters here are all composites, the time frame conflated) with stories of the people who died. Much of the conflict is given over to tantrums by Quinn, the character based on Jones, and to a flip-flopping dilemma: In Act One, there aren't enough panels to create a quilt; in Act Two, there are too many panels to sew together in time for its unveiling.
The play is most entertaining when its corpses speak. One dead man complains that his quilt panel is getting more attention than he did when he was alive; another wishes he'd died in front of then-president Ronald Reagan; a stereotypically queeny man bitches about the placement of his panel, because "the colors clash!"
Fans of hammy scenery-chewing won't be disappointed. When the acting isn't overwrought, it's underplayed particularly by Kinga Nijinsky, whose lifeless performance in each of her several roles grinds the show to a halt. But Franc Gaxiola delivers a fiery lead performance, and Mitch Etter provides a delightfully light presence as Neal, one of the Quilt founders, and as several different dead people. Much was made, in both the playbill and a pre-show announcement, of the fact that Frank Roberts had joined the cast at the eleventh hour and had never performed on stage before. But Roberts proved himself a worthy scenemaker, even while still toting a copy of the script with him.
Magana gets off some interesting bits of his own. In a scene where a young mother renounces her son's "lifestyle," the director garbs her in priest's vestments and hands her a Bible to thump. In another scene in which two young lovers, one of whom is HIV-positive, imagine growing old together, Magana casts two more-than-middle-aged actors in the roles.
It's interesting that, while Magana inverts the script's overt message that "AIDS is not a gay disease" by scoring the show with piles of gay disco and other swishy references, the publicity for the show takes a lower road. Press releases for Remember My Name deliberately obscure the fact that Valley One in Ten (VOIT), a recipient of the program's proceeds, is a gay teen group. VOIT is referred to in the show's media kit as "a group that serves the needs of young people to help them with a positive image of themselves," and "a local youth program."
White Byson's production is slightly more subtle than its press materials. If nothing else, Remember My Name reminds us that AIDS continues to threaten lives, and hints at potentially more compelling work from our newest theater company.
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