Only a month ago, movie critics and entertainment industry observers were wondering if “Brokeback Mountain” — Ang Lee's critical and film festival darling, centering on a homosexual relationship — could play to a general audience.
Four Golden Globe Awards later and holding steady in the national box-office top 10, “Brokeback” is a success. But its makers still bristle at the moniker the film has earned as “the gay cowboy movie.”
“This is a universal story,” Lee told the press backstage at the Jan. 16 Golden Globes. “I wanted to make a love story.”
“Brokeback” isn't alone in aspiring to be more than the sum of its homosexual parts.
Sunday, Matthew Bourne's 1999 Tony Award-winning modern adaptation of the ballet “Swan Lake,” which made waves for its casting of male dancers as swans, begins its 10th anniversary national tour with an Arizona debut at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe.
And last week, Actors Theatre of Phoenix opened its Valley premiere of “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” Manuel Puig's play adaptation of his novel about a Marxist revolutionary journalist and a gay window dresser who form a relationship while imprisoned in Argentina.
Organizers with both productions say it has been a delicate dance, marketing the productions to gay audiences while emphasizing to mainstream crowds — via newsletters and Web sites — that the shows are much more than merely “gay ‘Swan Lake' ” and a “gay prison drama.”
“I think we're better off serving it as a nonissue,” Actors Theatre artistic director Matthew Wiener says. “We don't want to put barriers up.”
DIFFERENT SWAN SONG
British choreographer Matthew Bourne is known for having a bit of a revisionist streak in him. His “Swan Lake” was the first of several adaptations of classics, including “Cinderella” and Bizet's “Carmen” — the latter of which was redubbed “The Car Man” and set in an auto garage.
In Bourne's vision of “Swan Lake,” the story of a young prince who falls in love with a swan is given a stylish 1950s cinema feel — Bourne is a big fan of Gene Kelly — with several modern touches, like heavy references to the British royal family.
But what gets the most attention is that the swans are played not by traditional ballerinas but, rather, by men with bare, powdered chests and feathered leggings. Bourne has said this is a natural idea, adding power to the beautiful creatures and also allowing for a bit more aggression in them.
“I think there could be lots of interpretations about it,” says dancer Neil Penlington, who plays the lead swan. “There is that gay undertone, but the way I play it is, it's the prince's flight of freedom. He sees it in a bird who happens to be a male swan.”
Productions in London and Los Angeles and on Broadway were successful both critically and at the box office, though it was often referred to as a “gay ‘Swan Lake,' ” to everyone's chagrin.
“But you don't go thinking it's a gay version of the ballet. What Matthew has done is very clever, adapting the story without distorting it too much,” says Rowland Lee, who re-orchestrated Tchaikovsky's score for a 27-piece orchestra.
“Besides,” Lee adds, “you'd have to be pretty uncool for that to spoil your evening.”
Actors Theatre isn't concerned about “Spider Woman's” homosexual romance alienating audiences. The professional theater company is known for edgy, thought-provoking plays of all stripes.
But Wiener says he'd rather people consider other, more powerful themes that Puig's story (perhaps best known by its 1985 film version) tosses into the air. Particularly ideas about human rights and torture.
“It's a love story between two men,” he says, “but it's about love and victimization, torture as a legitimate means of getting information. We'd be reducing it too much if we called it a gay play.”
Anyway, the theater company has much bigger sexual hurdles to overcome at the end of its season. In late April, it will stage Edward Albee's bestiality play, “The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?”
Says Wiener, laughing: “We haven't grappled totally with that yet.”