The theater world isn’t overflowing with complex lead roles for lesbians.
“The other day I went down a rabbit hole looking for gay plays, and this was one of five about gay women explicitly,” says actor Alexandra (Ixy) Utpadel, a queer woman costarring in the production of 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche
at Theater Works in downtown Peoria.
But to her delight, in this play, “The sexuality of the characters and their queerness is not the source of the sadness, which I think is important.” Utpadel says. “This is the first time I’ve gotten to say ‘I am a lesbian’ on stage, and the feeling is not one of anger or sadness. It is pure joy.”
Set in 1956 in a church basement somewhere in the American South, 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche
brings together a group of "widows" — which includes audience members, regardless of gender — for the annual quiche breakfast of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein. But when a communist nuclear bomb hits, the women realize they might be the only people left on the planet.
What follows is a quiche-devouring, soul-searching parody of social mores, during which the organizers come to terms with who they really are.
Theater Works Executive Director Chris Hamby says, “I read so many plays, and very rarely do they make me laugh out loud while reading them, and this one certainly did.”
That said, he adds, “I really saw it as high, high comedy, a silly, funny play, and when I sat through rehearsals and saw actors acting it out, it has hidden heart that really didn’t come across to me. There’s some sincerity there, too.”
5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche
opened January 20 as part of Theater Works’ After Dark series and runs through February 12. First staged in 2012 in Chicago, the play is a period piece — costumes feature crinoline, wigs, pearls, polka dots, and pillbox hats — with contemporary parallels.
“What do we say to ourselves? ‘It’s 2023; how are we still dealing with these things?’” says the director, Virginia Olivieri.
Hamby says the work plays into stereotypes and then dumps them on their heads. “It’s written for a modern audience with a modern eye,” he notes.
He chose to stage 5 Lesbians and a Quiche
because it’s “a little outside of the box, hilarious, unexpected,” and, he adds, “What a great way to feature so many brilliant female actors in the Valley.”
The fact that the play spotlights five lesbian character co-leads, in and of itself, is notable. New York Times
theater critic Jesse Green recently wrote a piece about theater moving beyond overtly gay themes and characters, stating, “[T]he novelty and success of queer characters no longer depends on their angst, their fabulousness or even their centrality to the story,” but later added the caveat, “[T]here are still far too few lesbian ones.”
Perhaps more surprising is that even though the entire audience is egged on to declare they’re lesbians, the show was written by two men, Andrew Hobgood and Evan Linder. “Would it have reached its peak had it been written by two gay women?” Utpadel asks. “I don’t know.”
Olivieri says when auditioning the roles, she looked not only for talent, but for people who fit well together. “This show involved a level of intimacy and real levels of being free with who you are as a person,” she says. “I needed women who could tell this story as organically and authentically as possible.”
The five actors have a chemistry that at times is “explosive” in the room, Olivieri notes, which she saw during auditions: “You look for those sparks. From ‘jump,’ there was a connection, there was a chemistry, there was a trust, and there was an honesty,” she says.
The actors include Utpadel as Dale Prist, Christine Ward as Ginny Cadbury, Sarah White as Vern Shultz, Stephanie Vlasich as Wren Robin, and Vanessa Nelson as Lulie Stanwyck.
Another remarkable facet of the show is that the company, Theater Works — now in its 37th season — is primarily known for musicals and family programming. After Dark, Hamby says, is for people who "don’t want to sit in the dark for two hours and be passive.”
During the earlier days of the pandemic, Theater Works did an immersive, “sort of naughty” show called Curiouser and Curiouser,
based on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
, Hamby says. It was staged for only 10 guests at a time so they could socially distance. “We played to about 5,000 patrons, 10 people at a time,” he recalls. “It was pretty fantastic.”
A film called Down the Rabbit Hole
was made about the show and the process of making art during the pandemic. It’ll screen
for free at 7 p.m. on Saturday, February 4, at Herberger Theater Center.
5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche
continues serving the demographic that Theater Works tapped into during that run. It’s in the 65-seat black-box McMillin Theater at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, rather than the 275-seat main stage.
Though there’s nothing wrong with blockbuster musicals and family-friendly fare, Utpadel says, she’s heartened by this move to be more diverse.
“There was a season when — I kid you not — nine theaters in the Valley did Annie
,” she says. “Gosh darn it, I wish they’d take some risks.”
Utpadel adds, “For every Sound of Music,
there should be a 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche.
5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche. Through Sunday, February 12. Theater Works, 10580 North 83rd Drive, Peoria. Recommended for ages 16 and up. Tickets are $37. Call 623-815-7930 or visit the Theater Works website.