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Review: Torch Song at Chapel off Chapel

Review by Liz Baldwin

Torch Song at Chapel off Chapel, part of the Midsumma Festival, is an engaging, moving story from Cal Robinson-Taylor and Phoebe Taylor of Taylor Made Productions. 

The play adapts the Torch Song Trilogy by Harvey Fierstein, originally a three-act, four-hour show that premiered in 1982. It follows the life of Arnold Beckoff (Joshua Reuben), a Jewish drag queen in New York in the 1970s and 1980s, as he falls in and out of love and negotiates a sometimes-hostile world. 

Arnold’s evolving relationship with Ed (Scott Middleton) provides the throughline of the show. Arnold and Ed meet in the first act and quickly develop an intimacy – but Ed, fearing his conservative parents’ disapproval, leaves him to marry a woman, Laurel (Phoebe Anne Taylor). Arnold and Ed never quite leave each others’ lives, though, even as the years roll by. Along the way, we meet other important figures in Arnold’s life: the younger model, Alan (Declan Clifford), with whom he later falls in love; his adopted son, David (Louie Dalzell); and his traditional Jewish mother (Melina Wylie).

Taylor Made Productions’ adaptation strips Fierstein’s trilogy down to two acts in two-and-a-half hours. While the core of the show remains intact, the pacing suffers a little from the cuts. The middle section, Fugue in a Nursery, felt particularly clipped. The scenes are set at Ed and Laurel’s country house, which Arnold and Alan are visiting for a weekend. Old tensions and jealousies should be simmering slowly – but with the time constraints of this production, conflict arrives so quickly it feels a little under-baked.

The country house scenes are the audience’s main opportunity to build a relationship with Laurel and Alan – but the shortened run time limits our ability to see them as any more than puppets in Arnold and Ed’s lives, despite strong performances from Phoebe Anne Taylor and Declan Clifford. And with only limited investment in Alan and Arnold’s relationship, the emotional punches of the third act hit a little less deeply.

But on the whole the show is moving and emotionally effective. Joshua Reubens, in his debut production outside the Yiddish community, delivers a powerful performance as the fractious-but-fragile Arnold. Reubens easily transitions between the light irony that is Arnold’s default mode and heavier emotional beats. Melina Wylie, as Arnold’s mother, also beautifully captures the contradictions and challenges of a woman whose love for her son conflicts with the traditional views she grew up with. It’s a shame that her other job – exaggeratedly lip-syncing during scene transitions while cast members scurry around with furniture – falls flat in an already-busy production.

The production made the most of the intimate theatre setting. The minimal set – a bed, a couch, a chair – was slathered in aquamarine paint, providing visual connection between each of the three scenes. And simple changes in costume were an effective way to mark the progress of time, and characters, through the play.

It's great to see a revival of Fierstein’s ground-breaking play. Taylor Made Productions have delivered a strong adaptation with plenty of heart.

Image Supplied


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