When director David Whalen calls for "Kip," Patrick Jordan tucks his fielder's mitt under his arm and trots to a stage designed like a miniature baseball diamond grafted onto a cutaway locker room. At this late-May rehearsal for Take Me Out, for actors like Jordan, the lines between "cast" and "team" blur a little more than usual. And that feels appropriate for the Pittsburgh premiere of Richard Greenberg's 2002 play -- a Tony Award-winning drama exploring a volatile mix of sport, race, class and the politics of coming out queer.
Like a nation around its sun king, Take Me Out revolves around the Apollonian figure of Darren Lemming, a star center-fielder for the champion New York Empires. Reigning from within the ramparts of his own athletic mastery, untroubled charisma and inviolable celebrity, the half-black, half-white Lemming decides -- mid-season -- that coming out will be about as troublesome as fielding a pop-up. But Take Me Out is less about the comic and tragic series of events that instead ensue -- or about the show's notorious locker-room nudity -- than it is about how baseball reflects American society. In the real world, after all, no professional American athlete has ever come out while still on a team's active-duty roster.
Jordan, artistic director of barebones productions, has wanted to stage the play for years. His company is acclaimed for its handling of edgy material; last year alone, it produced both the brutal concentration-camp drama The Grey Zone and the mad conspiracy thriller Bug. But Take Me Out's all-male cast of 11 -- not to mention the plumbing required for on-stage locker-room showers -- stayed out of barebones' financial strike zone until Jordan teamed with the Three Rivers Arts Festival.
With help from Arts Festival executive director Elizabeth Reiss, The Sprout Fund and others, Take Me Out is the biggest stage production yet under the festival's Fourth River live-performance initiative.
Barebones routinely sells out its small, borrowed venues. But it's never been on the bill of something as big -- and as mainstream -- as the Arts Festival. The high-ceilinged Downtown storefront space called Navarro will house the 99 box seats; the 12-performance run is June 7-22, and the final week, like some of the play's themes, coincides with Pittsburgh's annual gay-and-lesbian Pride Week. Challenges, meanwhile, include ensuring that ticket-buyers are aware of the full-frontal nudity. Jordan contends that the nudity, which caused a minor sensation on Broadway, is as integral to the show's themes as it is likely to shock audiences on deck for a nice baseball play.
Christian Felix plays Darren: Besides Jordan, whose level-headed Kip is the team leader and narrator, the cast includes local notables Bingo O'Malley, Jeffrey Carpenter, Joshua Elijah Reese and Tony Bingham. Tristan Farmer plays Shane Mungit, an emotionally damaged relief pitcher whose homophobia is the play's gunpowder; Tom Aulino is Mason Marzac, the nerdy gay accountant who's hired to manage Darren's money and falls in love ... with baseball.
In fact, a highlight is converted fan Marzac's passionate speech equating baseball and democracy. ("What could be more generous than to give everyone all these opportunities and the time to seize them in, as well?") That's a theme director Whalen emphasizes, especially in an election year notably involving a charismatic, biracial man graced with a certain emotional reserve.
Whalen, a New Kensington native who's been busy as an actor with Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, says Take Me Out is "a play about bravery and identity in a team world." In 2005, New Jersey-based Whalen played Kip for Philadelphia Theatre Company. He was so keen to direct that he juggled the barebones rehearsals (mostly mornings) with afternoon rehearsals for a role in PICT's Salome ... and evening performances in PICT's An Ideal Husband.
Early in rehearsals for Take Me Out, Jordan invited a scout and former pro ballplayer to brief the cast about baseball life. Though the scout hadn't read the play, someone asked him what would happen if a player came out. The scout -- without any bigotry, Whalen emphasizes -- said that was "the only thing that would break up a clubhouse."
"The more he talked, the more everything in the play [seemed] almost exactly right," says Jordan.
barebones productions presents Take Me Out Fri., June 7-22. Navarra, 131 Seventh St., Downtown. $10. 412-456-6666 or www.artsfestival.net
- Playing hardball: Patrick Jordan (left), Tristan Farmer and Christian Felix star in Take Me Out.