All You Can Be


Show #57: Fighting Mac!, Theatre Rhinoceros, June 11.

Ann Lawler and William J. Brown III in Fighting Mac! Photo by Kent Taylor.

By Sam Hurwitt

The artistic director of San Francisco’s Theatre Rhinoceros, which lays claim to being “the world’s oldest continuously producing queer theater,” John Fisher has been fairly prolific in the world premieres of his own work as writer, director and sometimes performer, usually including one in each season. In his case that’s a good thing, as Fisher’s a clever and continually fascinating playwright, even if some of the new works inevitably seem not quite finished by the time they hit the stage.   He’s the only two-time winner of the Glickman Award for best new play to debut in the Bay Area, in 1996 for the hilarious romp Medea the Musical and in 1999 for Combat!, a drama about gay soldiers in WWII.

Fisher returns to the latter theme with his latest play, Fighting Mac!, which goes back and forth between two gay soldiers fighting in Afghanistan: Hector Macdonald, the great Scottish military leader in the English army in the late 1800s, and Jesse, a young American amid the present-day demise of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Joshua Lomeli plays Jesse, a drama geek with a child’s thirst for adventure. He’s obsessed with military history and is going to West Point for a career in the armed forces for the sheer excitement and romance of it. Macdonald is his favorite, and Jesse is actually writing an amusingly silly school play about him. “Hector is my Lady Gaga!” Jesse gushes. Cue him and his best friend Daniel (Erik Johnson) dancing around in Jesse’s room singing “Bad Romance” (never mind that it wasn’t out yet in 2008, when the play starts).

Lomeli and Johnson play the teenage versions of the characters as very young—certainly younger than the high school seniors they’re supposed to be—who jump up and down screaming in glee a lot. “Just because you act gay doesn’t mean you are gay,” says Daniel, a Mormon kid who seems to be on the fence about his sexuality despite being the swishier of the two. From the start Jesse seems much more comfortable and matter-of-fact about being gay—so much so that it’s confusing when he later dramatically comes out to Daniel, because it’s not like it was some big secret.

It’s hard to get into the first scenes with Jesse and Daniel because it’s hard to really buy them as characters. It’s not just that their immaturity is overstated, especially with the sensitivity with which Lomeli plays him, but Jesse’s naivete remains a problem throughout the play. There’s something charming about Jesse’s insistence on keeping his virginity as long as DADT is in place, even if it’s taking his sense of military duty to extremes, but the way he romanticizes war is particularly far-fetched. He seems positively shocked to find that it actually involves killing people. That takes him a little beyond the role of bright-eyed, fresh-faced innocent and just makes him seem not too bright.

Things improve considerably when we jump to the late 1800s to catch up with Macdonald. As played by William J. Brown III, he’s a charismatic, canny and enthusiastic soldier who cares about the people around him but doesn’t let that slow him down. One minute he’s whipping his clingy subordinate (and secret lover) Radclyff (Evan Bartz) for scaredycat talk under fire and the next he’s comforting his men and getting their spirits up for battle. He’s ambitious, rising quickly through the ranks despite the English officers who resent him as an upstart Scot and want to see him fall—which makes it all the more imperative that he keep his dalliances with fellow soldiers quiet.

Jon Wai-keung Lowe’s set at Thick House is strikingly stark, a geometric cliff of sharp triangles in front of a large parallelogram. More often than not, events in the different centuries take place at different altitudes in Fisher’s staging, although it’s not like the bottom of the cliff is consistently the past and the top is the present or anything so simple as that. Mac and Jesse occasionally talk to each other over the divide of a century—one high up atop a cliff, the other down below—usually to criticize each other’s life choices.

Ann Lawler has an appealing assuredness as Hector’s wife Christina, a woman from his hometown with society ambitions and an earned reputation for looseness, who proposes marriage as a mutually beneficial business arrangement. Elijah Guo is comical as a classmate who comes on strong to Jesse at West Point, Alex Lee fills out the ranks as a variety of soldiers, and playwright/director Fisher gives terrific performances as a down-to-earth West Point instructor who deftly sidesteps the DADT debate and as Mac’s blustery, upper-class commanding officer.

Fisher draws some interesting parallels between the two stories, especially as to how loved ones are sacrificed in the name of ambition when people feel they have something to hide. The trouble is that it feels more fleshed out and more believable in Hector’s story than in Jesse’s—especially whenever Daniel’s involved, because he continues to feel pretty contrived as a character. Interestingly, the most developed relationship in the play is that between Hector and his wife, and their scenes together are particularly strong, showing a much more vulnerable side of Mac. For all its rough patches, Fighting Mac! provides plenty of hilarious moments, tender scenes and food for thought suggesting that not nearly as much has changed since the Victorian era as we might like to think.

Fighting Mac! plays through July 3 at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco.

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