I have been meaning to see The Classic Stage Company’s production of Unnatural Acts, (based on the true story of Harvard University’s persecution of homosexual students) since the play opened. That I chose to see it on the eve of New York State issuing the first marriage licenses to gay couples, is somewhat poetic.
Unnatural Acts takes place at Harvard University in 1920. It is based on actual records which were uncovered at the end of 2002 by a Harvard student. The records, of a tribunal and subsequent persecution of 38 students, is compelling for its layers of inhumanity. The university’s rather flaccid response and comment to the discovery of the records, only compound the impact of the story.
The play was conceived by its director, Tony Speciale and written by the members of the Plastic Theatre (who comprise most of the cast.) This is a true ensemble piece as demonstrated by the absolute fluidity of story, staging and character. The actors are so perfectly cast as their characters, it is difficult to imagine anyone else embodying the roles. The thrust stage transforms into various Harvard locales, and once, through a genius use of lights above the fly, a train station. The story is told in a riveting dramatic manner, never resorting to sentiment. From the moment the stage lights come up, we know it is 1920 and can feel all that that implies. We watch the young men perform their toilette while discussing their friend’s recent death (he was found dressed in a suit, in his childhood bedroom, gassed to death.) Their varying reactions and relationship to one another tells us so very much about the pressure to conform. The subtlety in the layers of social class in the ivy league setting are timeless and lend a very modern feel to this very period piece (the actors even have 1920’s haircuts.)
So much could be said about the story itself, about the implications of institutionalized bigotry and the absence of reparation. However, space and attention span, sway me to discuss the production itself. Unnatural Acts is the closest thing to a musical, without music, you will ever see. Exquisitely choreographed, the actors are positively fluid. The second scene actually has 8 men on stage moving in slow motion at a party. Couples transition into real time as we hear their conversation. It is a real party, but slowed down. Every detail and facial nuance is entirely authentic. Every piece of this production is up to the scrutiny of slow motion. Even set changes are beautiful to watch.
The final scene is the most musical of them all. I was reminded of the power of Bill T. Jones’ Spring Awakening classroom scene. The sounds and movement were so incredibly powerful. I regretted sitting in the first row of a thrust theatre, as there really is no way to hide the hiccuping sobs.
I simply cannot remember having seen something this flawless and powerful. This play has been extended (for the third time) only through July 31st. I urge you to have this experience.