Your drinks arrive at your table in Mynt Lounge on Davie St and you look up at your partner and propose a toast that’s just heard over canned jazz piano playing over the speakers.
Over your partner’s shoulders, you see a giant of a woman, poised, elegant, all curves in a long, red satin dress and four-inch heels, make the rounds of the room, smiling and flirting with the customers.
She passes your table, pausing to wink and run her hand lightly over your shoulder, just long enough to steal your attention from your partner’s eyes. Neither of you can help but follow the shape of her backside as it makes its way to the stage.
The canned jazz stops and the pianist takes over. The lounge singer steps on stage, takes the microphone and begins to croon a familiar melody. The room falls silent as all eyes turn to her.
The songs keep coming–soft renditions of rockabilly hits of the ’60s and ’70s–pausing only for a brief greeting from the songstress three songs in and the occasional spoken intro. When the lights come up for intermission, you look over and wonder if your date is thinking the same thing you are:
“Is this the show? Are we in the right place?”
Lounge, a collaboration between local queer theatre group the Screaming Weenies and Chrysalis Theatre, doesn’t spell its narrative out for you, and challenges the audience to build the story itself by inference, by looks, by song choices and mood.
“I don’t write plots or storyboard,” says writer Tanya Marquardt, who also plays the unnamed lounge singer. “I do lots of research and I cut and paste and steal. I borrow a narrative, like if I take a pack of cards and throw it on the ground and rearrange it.”
When the lounge singer returns from her break, joking to have had a few drinks, the songs go on, but her speeches between songs become noticeably more contemplative and moody. She wistfully describes lost love but it’s several songs later before it becomes clear that the woman she’s talking about is not an abstraction, but her own ex-lover.
“It’s purposely vague, but the story accumulates,” says Marquardt.
Director Ilena Lee Cramer says she was intrigued by the challenge of an entertainer outing herself.
“As a performer, you’re always sexualised, but you’re heterosexualised,” she says. “Even gay actors and dancers have to be straight. For this character to come out on stage is very risky.”
Mounting this play during Pride Week is no coincidence either. Cramer notes that the gay community has always had a close relationship with lounge musicians and that performers from Bette Midler to Barry Manilow to Madonna got their start by performing in gay bars and bathhouses. The modern gay rights movement also has a strong connection to the lounge scene.
“The Stonewall Riots happened right after the death of Judy Garland when the gay bars were just packed with people who were mourning, and they had had enough,” says Cramer.
But the show works best because it isn’t a political screed or a call to arms. It’s not even about an artist putting herself on stage and exposing her soul before an audience.
It’s just a woman performing her nightly routine in the face of her own heartache, and succumbing to that loneliness.
It works because it’s real, and the challenge it leaves for the audience is that much more daring because of it.
“I think it’s interesting to see people drown on stage, but we also see this happen all the time in real life,” says Marquardt. “I want people to look around themselves and see if there are people around that are drowning that need their help.”
Marquardt built the travelling lounge singer out of her own experiences, including a childhood spent moving from place to place with her father, a travelling vacuum cleaner salesman.
“If you’re constantly displaced, you never make connections with people, you feel numb,” she says. “This character is displaced from her home, and displaced from this woman who had become her ideal of home.”
Her childhood experiences also informed her choice of music.
“Most of the music came from my dad,” she says, “from music we listened to on the road that came from the ’60s and ’70s.”
This is a play that will seduce you slowly, will attempt to draw you in, and, inevitably, it won’t work for everybody. But Marquardt is okay with that.
“I hope people feel confused and wonder what they just saw and have conversations about it,” she says.
Undoubtedly, she’ll get her wish. Also undoubtedly, the audience will go home remembering a challenge the lounge singer issues to them:
“Everything boils down to these two questions: what am I looking for, and what am I running from?” The lounge singer repeats the questions softly before segueing into Elvis’ “Love Me Tender.”