“Blue Camp,” a new play at Rainbow Theatre Project by Tim Caggiano and Jack Calvin Harris, is unfortunately, heavy on exposition and light on creating believable relationships between its promising characters.
…outstanding performances [by] each and every actor in the ten person ensemble cast.
The play explores a vitally important piece of American history: the official treatment of gay service members by the Armed Forces in the 1960’s when the country was right at the cusp of the Vietnam War. “Blue Camp” is highly educational and therefore worth seeing, especially when paired with the outstanding performances of each and every actor in the ten-person ensemble cast.
However, the uneven script which does a lot more “telling” than “showing” left me wanting more. The playwrights have a brilliant concept in the opposing dynamics of two cells of imprisoned soldiers – one-half of the men there for being gay, and the other half there for actual crimes including theft and murder.
Despite some beautiful tidbits of dialogue, the majority of the characters’ dramatic reveals about their pasts felt unearned due to the lack of progressively developing relationships between the men. Rather, each reveal read as a moment of exposition coming out of the blue and felt far too personal to be believable in the context of the apparent estrangement of the men.
However, that being said, I do think that this play has enormous potential and could be reworked into something truly magnificent if the playwrights were to focus more on scripting naturally evolving relationships between the prisoners rather than the heavy attention to historical narration and the multitude of jarring scene changes which took place in rapid succession throughout the play.
Moses Bossenbroek shone as main character Billy, an openly gay service member only jailed due to increasing crackdowns and the revolving policy of upper brass. As Billy, Bossenbroek portrayed both charming flirtatiousness and hardcore grit as they demonstrated that a drag queen could also be a highly decorated and top-notch soldier.
Jared Michael Swain gave a hard-hitting performance as Billy’s friend and comrade Jantzen Hill, giving off easily amused vibes that could switch on a dime, when needed, to a deeper strength. Daniel Riker as nerdy “professor” Arnold Malloy delivered a wonderfully ditzy and erudite performance as a man quite out of place in the army.
As Steven Dugger, a Midwesterner who didn’t quite want to believe that he was gay, Noah Beye gave a powerful performance, especially when he recounted his past trauma. Reginald Richard, who recently starred in Rainbow Theatre Project’s “Jeffrey,” gave another strong performance, this time as an angry and violent prisoner who was also suffering deeply from the effects of his past.
Ivan Carlo played an amiably unrepentant kleptomaniac and was quite fun to watch. While there were several humorous interactions between the two camps of prisoners throughout the play, most of it was shade which, while hilarious, has a more cutting edge. Carlo, as Alvin Bailey, brought pure comic relief in his childlike delight at stealing which was a valuable component in a play that deals with a heavy subject matter.
Another standout was Jared H. Graham as Sergeant Swanger but the script left me confused as to his role. Throughout the play, he appeared to be developing a soft spot for Billy which, by the end of play led me to believe that Swanger was himself closeted and developing feelings for Billy – except their final moment was abruptly interrupted and usurped by a different character – who hadn’t seemed to previously exhibit any romantic feelings for Billy whatsoever. I felt very confused and somewhat let down by this odd conclusion.
I enjoyed the set design very much by Simone Schneeberg. The cleverly crafted cell bars were a lovely illusion that allowed for an uninhibited view for both sides of the audience while fulfilling their purpose. The multitude of crates and storage boxes allowed for quick set changes and re-positionings which were used to great advantage.
While the majority of the costumes by Costume Designer T.F. Dubois were basic army stylings, I loved Billy’s cheerleading skirt, made in the vintage baseball style of “A League of Their Own” out of two tones of army green. It was truly fabulous. Billy’s gauzy red dressing gown was also a fun historical nod to the era. Sound Designer Elliot Lanes chose a nostalgic soundtrack of 60’s pop favorites that wound through the multiple scene changes and set the mood for the historical relevance of the story.
Overall, I have mixed feelings about this play. It’s an important and historically relevant topic, especially with the current transgender bans apparently going into place for armed service members, and I love the overall premise and concept of the play. However, the choppy and uneven script makes it a less fulfilling experience than it could have been. The actors are truly phenomenal, though, in taking what comes across as overly expository dialogue and elevating it with their emotional and nuanced performances. I do hope that you will choose to see the play in support of its valuable message and exceptional cast, even though I wish it could have been more.
Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.
“Blue Camp” by Rainbow Theatre Project is playing through November 24, 2019. For more information, click here.