Diff'rent Strokes

In each of the shows that opened here last weekend, there's a scene in which the tormented lead demands that his male lover tell him "I love you." The replies are as different as the productions; one of them a comedy, the other a drama. Both plays deal with issues of identity, but where Lilies is a beautifully realized piece of writing with a cast that struggles to keep it afloat, Deporting the Divas provides an accomplished take on a script that could use a good rewrite.In Mixed Company's production of Deporting the Divas, which author Guillermo Reyes debuted at the 1995 Border Playwrights Project, is set in a literal and metaphorical border town whose denizens are all struggling with who they are and who they'd like to be. The message, that we're all possessed of several identities, is as complex as the various characters who show up to debate it. In scene after humorous scene, Mexican-American INS agent Miguel (Steven Peña) confronts drag queens, militant gay immigrants, and film noir fantasy divas in a farce about the ways that people "pass" in life: gays passing as straight; illegal aliens passing as U.S. citizens; men passing as women.

Like Reyes' characters, his play has an identity crisis. It wants to be a persuasive political satire, but it's actually a romantic comedy punctuated with subversive opinions. While Reyes is smart about leading us to laughs and raising important issues, he's less proficient at making any kind of point about them. Instead, each concern -- cultural identity, AIDS, immigration policies -- is reduced to a pretty punch line. The result is political humor with no purpose.

Further mucking up this tangled and overlong script is its lack of any real conflict. Our hero, Miguel, is a married Latino who is supposedly struggling with his sexuality. He's attracted to both his new boyfriend (whom he's been assigned to deport), an imaginary drag queen, and his heterosexual identity as a macho, beer-drinking husband and father. But rather than being tormented by this personal conflict, Miguel is positively cheerful about it. While Reyes rarely attempts any kind of reality, Miguel's smiley pursuit of gay sex is utterly unbelievable and makes his personal revolution seem artificial.

Director D. Scott Withers' cast is up to the task of sorting through this jumble. The five-man ensemble is a pleasure to watch, as they swap roles and genders to perform a 14-character company of crazed archetypes. David Jones' hilarious performances as a pair of scary would-be women were met with hoots and spontaneous applause on opening night, and Peña's Miguel is well-shaded despite the character's shortcomings.

The actors who represent the recently formed Nearly Naked Theatre don't fare as well. The company's production of Lilies boasts a single memorable performance and a handful of thoughtful attempts at wringing truth from Michel Marc Bouchard's brilliant play.

Set in 1952 Quebec, Bouchard's story concerns Catholic Bishop Bilodeau (Lyman Akers), who's been invited to visit a dying man in prison. Once there, he's confronted by Simon (Ritch Martori), a convict he hasn't seen in 40 years, and forced to witness a play performed by the prison's inmates. The tragic story concerns Simon's and Bilodeau's childhood and Simon's tragic affair with another boy, Vallier (Blake Sereno). Vallier's father disapproves of his son's romance, but Simon's mother -- the crazy Countess de Tilly -- champions the affair. Bilodeau, who's preparing to become a priest, is also in love with Simon, who agrees to marry a wealthy baroness in hopes of pleasing his father. The resulting crimes have brought Simon and Bilodeau to this prison, where they -- and we -- watch their young lives enacted by a group of unfortunately undertalented convicts.

Bouchard's beautifully realized story owes much to Shakespeare, whose Romeo and Juliet is affectionately plundered in this tale of young, outcast lovers. Likewise the complex play-within-a-play structure and use of men in women's roles, which is never distracting when it's director Damon Dering who's donning a dress. As the Countess, Dering is remarkable: In a frumpy skirt and dangling snood, he's vague but never unfocused; fey but never silly as a man playing a woman who thinks she's a displaced royal.

Dering's double duty as director and actor must have left him little time to lead the rest of his cast, most of whom compensate by overacting. Michael Sherwin's final scenes as the young Simon are touchingly portrayed, but Michael Peck -- as the neurotic young Bilodeau, all flashing eyes and rolling elbows -- provides the only other consistently real performance.

That's too bad, because Bouchard's rarely seen play deserves better. It's ironic and a little sad that, while Lilies wilts under listless direction over on Portland Street, Reyes' willfully opaque comedy breaks into a lively tango just a few blocks away.