Steve Noll’s not afraid to admit he’s been kicking himself a little these days.
In recent years, the local community theater director’s been working his way through an a la carte version of what he calls the Gay Men’s History Project—a series of plays he once hoped to stage in a single season at the Bartell Theater. Instead, he’s been spacing it out, starting with “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” in 2014 and “The Boys in the Band” the following year.
“When I was lining up the plays, I had nothing to bridge the gap between ‘Boys’ and ‘Gross Indecency,’” Noll says. “I’ve had this big list of shows I wanted to stage, but I hadn’t been paying attention to anything new.”
As a result, he somehow managed to miss “The Nance,” the 2013 Broadway show starring Nathan Lane as Chauncey Miles, a gay actor who plays a camp-tastic character in a New York burlesque theater in the 1930s—a time when, as the play’s tagline puts it, it was “OK to play gay, but not OK to be gay.”
It was actually the Madison Theatre Guild’s Jim Chiolino who brought “The Nance” to Noll’s attention, wondering if MTG and Noll’s OUT!Cast Theatre, which has given us the musical trifecta of “Xanadu,” “Bare” and “The Rocky Horror Show” over the past three years, might be up for joining forces. Noll re-read the script and jumped at the chance.
“This fits into the bigger story I’ve been trying to tell,” he explains.
Noll is especially intrigued by Chauncey, a character he describes as “strongly Republican, strongly conservative.” He’s a character tragically blind to the swirling political forces that threaten to consume him. He’ll be played by Dennis Yadon, who played Oscar Wilde in “Gross indecency” and was also part of the cast of “Boys.” Yadon initially passed on auditioning for the role, then changed his mind.
Noll sees no shortage of modern parallels between the universe of “The Nance,” in which Fiorello La Guardia, mayor of New York from 1934 through 1945, cracked down on displays of immorality (read: homosexuality) and shuttered burlesque clubs, and today, when half the country is being urged by supporters of President Trump “to give him a chance” while LBGTQ rights come under continued threat nationwide.
“The message is that you shouldn’t believe this is all rhetoric,” Noll says. “As Chauncey learns, it can have devastating consequences.”
Noll also appreciates the script’s political interplay. Yadon’s conservative character banters often with Sylvie, a communist stripper played by Katie Alicia Debs. At one point, Sylvie makes a joke about how nobody will even be talking about Social Security in 80 years. It’s funny—and it’s also not.
“I wanted to make sure we didn’t toss it off as a one-liner,” says Noll. “It’s more evidence that things haven’t really changed.”
On some fronts, anyway. After all, in the play at least, Chauncey and Sylvie remain friends.
“Just because you have different political views doesn’t mean you have to hate someone,” Noll notes. “This is a sad story. It doesn’t have a happy ending. But there’s a glimmer of hope at the end.”
“The Nance” opens this Friday at the Bartell Theatre and runs through May 6. For tickets, click here.
Aaron R. Conklin covers the Madison theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.
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