Whitty & Magruder Challenge Love & Gender Norms
by Jordan Freed
Does it make a lick of sense to combine Sir Philip Sidney’s 400-year-old pastoral romance Arcadia with the 1980s new wave sound of the Go-Go’s? Not in the slightest. But is it entertaining as hell? You bet!
At New Conservatory Theatre Center, director Ed Decker and the exuberant cast of “Head Over Heels” have “Got the Beat!”
Remarkable costume designer Wes Crain wonderfully combines the aristocratic aesthetics of ancient Greece and Elizabethan England with 80s big hair and bright colors. Who knew togas and leg warmers looked so good together?
Pythio (opulent Rotimi Agbabiaka), the Oracle of Delphi, looks elegant and stunning from head to toe, in vibrant greens and silvers, capturing an air of mystique and wonder.
Sharply angled Greek columns and video projections transport us to ancient kingdoms and lush forests. Heart-shaped videos and sexy photos get us laughing at the love problems of shepherds pretending to be courtiers. Nothing is what it seems, at first. Arcadian King Basilius (effective William Giammona) and his Queen Gynecia (jovial Stephanie Temple) both dream of a lustful affair with a strange Amazon visitor.
Formerly, the Arcadians lived utopian lives, invigorated by always having “The Beat.” When the king receives four perplexing prophecies from the Oracle, he sets off with his entire court, determined to outrun fate. Hilarious hijinks ensue, ranging from surprise lesbian romances to gender-bending disguises.
The king’s two daughters, vain Pamela (sensational Ella Ruth Francis) and plain Philoclea (remarkable Kimberley Cohan) take opposing paths. As egotistic Pamela, Francis runs away with the show, parading disdain, arrogance, horror, and hysteria in a span of minutes. Pamela’s queer self-discovery energizes funny moments, including obscene poetry hinting at homo-erotic sex.
The sex and gender discoveries keep coming, as starry-eyed shepherd Musidorus (comic Scott Scholes) pursues younger sister Philoclea. The Oracle aids Musidorus in his quixotic quest, disguising him as a beautiful Amazonian warrior. Naïve Musidorus finds unexpected bliss in his feminine side—as King and Queen both pursue her/him.
The cross-dressing plot feels at odds with the message of LGBTQ acceptance, as Musidorus’ antics are largely played for laughs until the final scene.
While the show is always enjoyable, it cannot quite escape the pitfalls of a jukebox musical, including ham-handed attempts to fit the Go-Go’s songs into Arcadia. You can practically hear Jeff Whitty’s gears whirring, as he finagles the script to include more popular tunes like “Vacation.”
NCTC continues to present shows that challenge conventional ideas of sex and gender. “Head Over Heels” may stumble a bit, but by the end, the show is dancing to “The Beat.”
“Head Over Heels” book by Jeff Whitty, songs by The Go-Go’s, based on Arcadia by Sir Phillip Sidney, adapted by James Magruder, directed by Ed Decker, at New Conservatory Theatre Centre, San Francisco, through Sunday, January 12, 2020. Info: nctcsf.org
Cast: Rotimi Agbabiaka, David Bicha, Kimberley Cohan, Danya El-Kurd, Ella Ruth Francis, William Giammona, Scott Scholes, Stephanie Temple, Casey Anne Apregan, Abigail Campbell, Daniel Cancel, Ciara Carvajal, and Jake Daniel Leahy.
Banner photo: Ella Ruth Francis.