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Mirror to Our Times: TOSOS’ “West Street Gang” at the Eagle NYC
by Thaddeus Motyka AKA Tad von M      |   follow us...

   
photo by JT Olsen
cast of "The West Street Gang"
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There is an ongoing debate among aestheticians as to whether Society defines Art or whether Art defines Society. TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence) is a dynamic and ingenious theatre company that consistently succeeds in laying that debate to rest, demonstrating with brio and panache that the two are inseparably entwined, and that The Arts articulate the questions facing Society with a voice that can be as lucid, pointed, illuminating, and relevant, as it is timeless. An essential element of the TOSOS mission is to preserve and present the archive of LGBTQ theatre, underscoring the necessity to educate, through theatrical offerings that are as thought-provoking and informative as they are entertaining.
The Artistic Direction at TOSOS consistently steers the company’s energies to bring forth the past in ways that shed a bright light on the present. Often producing performances in alternative spaces which obliterate the distance between audience, artist, and text, the work of TOSOS therefore becomes a representation of meticulous social conscience as conveyed by theatrical metaphor: Everyman becomes the Artist in Society, and Society becomes The Crucible of Art.
On August 1, the Eagle NYC bar hosted the latest TOSOS presentation: a benefit performance for OneOrlando, to support the Florida community devastated by the recent mass-shooting at the Pulse bar. The vessel chosen by TOSOS was a staged reading of TOSOS founder Doric Wilson’s play “The West Street Gang,” which premiered in 1977 at The Spike Bar in NYC. The playwright’s flair for the zinger is a matter of record, and his ability to script sharply-etched iconic personalities with few words is the work of a master.
The TOSOS cast of sixteen actors was a delight from beginning to end, a model of ensemble playing and clearly defined portrayals. Space does not allow me to praise each actor individually, so please consider it done: each was splendidly cast, and scored high marks in giving life to the rapid-fire dialogue, bringing it off the page with impetus, full meaning, and rich and varied flavor. I must, however, give special mention for overall excellence, total commitment, and unwaveringly consistent characterizations to Marc Castle’s spicy and scrappy Bill Bender—what’s in a name?—the old alcoholic enthroned on the same barstool for 20 years; Chris Weikl’s volcanically schizophrenic Shanghai Lil, utterly convincing in each of two genders; Chad Austin’s charmingly dazed and confused—and very, very high—Virgo; and Gail Dennison’s militantly shrewish Bnita Aryant, an exceptionally well-observed impersonation of the Orange Juice Queen.
This TOSOS presentation, poised as a mirror to current events of unprecedented magnitude and horror, was heart-shattering and mind-blowing—so many of the tragic elements remain unchanged, although forty years have passed. Returning the play to its origins as a site-specific piece of Environmental Theatre—the term I was taught in the 1970s for what is now known as Immersive Theatre—was a splendid and necessary stroke: the audience and actors merged, all were participants, and the actors indeed became Everyman as Artist, Artist as Spokesman—brilliant!
It will be most interesting and significant, I am sure, to see what this company offers next.
Making my way to The Eagle through the northwest section of Chelsea, I felt like I was in the opening sequence of Ridley Scott’s “Bladerunner.” The gargantuan new apartment buildings being constructed everywhere, all of which have sprung up to take full commercial advantage of the success of The Highline, succeed only in obliterating human scale and creating a new urban wasteland.
On 27th and 28th Streets alone, with Crobar gone, Quo gone, and Brite Bar gone, the Eagle is at the epicenter of a time warp: the last alternative culture meeting place to survive virtually intact on a tiny strip that was once a major LGBTQ destination. In recent years, The Eagle has more and more frequently demonstrated leadership as a socially conscious entity, sponsoring benefits, espousing causes, and increasing the visibility, as the community regains its strength, of the Leather Man and Woman, whose numbers were decimated, and whose substance was diluted, by the AIDS epidemic. Charles Darwin postulated that it is not the strongest species which survives, but the most adaptable. Highest praise to both TOSOS and the Eagle for taking a firm stance and holding the line to preserve the past with honor and dignity, while adapting to the changes dictated by the passing of time with passion intelligence, taste, and an eye on the future. The appropriate term, I believe, is Intergenerational Justice.
In closing, I absolutely MUST say that on August 1, as emotions ran high for the victims of the Pulse shooting, and in the midst of all the cerebral activity, the TOSOS reading of “The West Street Gang” was absolutely hilarious and touching, and a GREAT time was had by all!


 

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