WATERTOWN — One of the pleasures of the intimate Black Box space at New Repertory Theatre is just how up-close-and-personal the performances can be. Playwright, performer, and designer James Fluhr takes full — and fearless — advantage of this in his touching one-man play, “Our Lady.”
Even before the start of the show, Fluhr wanders through the audience, greeting newcomers and asking individuals to hold white sheets for a few moments before he drapes them over various set pieces. These touches bring the audience close to him, so that as the show progresses and he acquires an outlandish wig, makeup, and Cher-inspired gown, his vulnerability helps us understand that he is simply a human being looking for connection and compassion.
As a gay man, however, his search for compassion has been complicated by the abusive behavior of homophobes. For Fluhr, the creation of “Our Lady” was a response to his father’s devastating reaction to discovering a photo of him in a dress, but he recognizes that many young gay men have been crushed by bullying, and calls forth the names and faces of, and brief video clips about, several gay teens who have committed suicide.
In some ways, “Our Lady” invites comparisons to “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” John Cameron Mitchell’s brilliant musical exploration of a similar search for strength and self-acceptance. But there’s an element of simplicity in Fluhr’s performance that erases any feeling of a fourth wall, even as his sense of theatricality transforms large swaths of plastic and an assortment of simple chairs into vividly imagined people and places.
“Our Lady,” Fluhr tells us, is a story he created to stitch himself back together after his father’s rejection. He weaves together a series of related stories: a tender tale of first love lost to hatred; his brassy, but protective Big Mama, a Southern gal who takes no prisoners; and Our Lady, the drag diva he becomes as a way to exorcise his demons.
What is most extraordinary about “Our Lady” is Fluhr’s vision for the play, since he serves as writer, designer, and performer. While Fluhr’s playwriting suffers from an overabundance of clichés and a few awkward transitions, he is such a dynamic performer, we let them pass. As a writer, he does have a delightful sense of lyricism, and some of his imagery is truly exquisite. As a performer, he has a dancer’s light, lithe sense of movement, which allows him to conjure his Southern mama as easily as he offers us a glimpse of a young man nearly crushed by grief. As a director and designer, he brings creativity and beauty to the Black Box, moving from one corner to another, from the middle of the stage to the midst of the audience so we always feel a part of the action, no matter how terrifying it can be.
The contributions from Fluhr’s collaborators — Dan Alaimo’s evocative lighting, Matthew Haber’s projections, Yi-Chun “Iggy” Hung on sound, and Courtney Nelson on set design — all add up to an immersive theatrical experience.
As his first professional production, “Our Lady” introduces audiences to an exceptional talent. I can’t wait to see what Fluhr offers next.