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Stages | Terry Byrne

In revisiting a tragedy, ‘The View UpStairs’ opens a window to ’70s gay culture

Max Vernon, creator of “The View UpStairs”
Max Vernon, creator of “The View UpStairs”Roberto Araujo

‘The View UpStairs” is about community, says creator Max Vernon. “And about a place that brought a community together.

Vernon wrote the music, lyrics, and book for the musical, which SpeakEasy Stage Company is presenting at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre May 31-June 22. With a clever rock score, “The View UpStairs” focuses on a forgotten tragedy in New Orleans in 1973, when 32 people died in a fire at the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in the French Quarter. Arson was suspected but no one was ever charged. Until the Pulse nightclub shooting massacre in 2016, in which 49 people died, the fire was the worst mass killing of gay people in the country’s history.

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“I was struck by the paradox of a period in history when the shared experience of oppression brought gay men together, compared to today, when, despite our freedom to be open, our community has never been more fractured,” says Vernon, 31.

“I majored in queer studies at NYU, and I came across this tragedy that no one had heard of, not even my professors. The AIDS crisis broke the link that might have connected the generations.”

“The View UpStairs” opens in 2017, when Wes, a designer seeking refuge from New York City, buys an abandoned building in New Orleans. As he pokes around the rundown place, he is transported to 1973, when the second floor of the building was home to the UpStairs Lounge. As Wes tries to find his footing in a past when homosexuality was not accepted, sexual acts between men were illegal, and most of the bar’s patrons were closeted, he meets the assorted regulars at the bar, who were willing to risk everything for the chance to be themselves for a few hours in the UpStairs Lounge.

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“What is striking is the patrons are a mix of ages and interests,” says Paul Daigneault, who is directing “The View UpStairs.” “What brings them together is the bar, which in some ways is the main character in the play.”

Daigneault has created an ensemble that reflects that range of experience onstage. He has called on SpeakEasy regulars Will McGarrahan and Russell Garrett, along with newcomers including J’royce Jata, who plays Wes. Jata just came off a tour of “Fame” and is a company member in Garth Fagan Dance.

“Wes has to react to everything — people, objects that are so completely foreign to him. I call it, ‘50 Shades of Wes,’ ” Daigneault says with a laugh. “But it’s important that Wes learns from the range of men who frequent the UpStairs Lounge.”

The differences between the men was important for Vernon to make clear.

“Today, we can filter people through apps,” he says. “We don’t have to interact with people who aren’t like us, and I think that stagnates growth.”

Daigneault describes the musical as “a bit of a cautionary tale.”

“But it’s also a celebration of where gay culture came from and where it is now. Over the past 40 years, gay characters have moved from clowns and victims to three-dimensional human beings. This story is a reminder that each generation can learn from each other and that we should look for opportunities to do that.”

To create the period atmosphere, SpeakEasy is returning to its roots and performing in the BCA Plaza Theatre space.

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“We wanted to make the production as immersive as possible, so we have some seats at tables on the floor,” says Daigneault, SpeakEasy’s artistic director. “The biggest challenge has been finding authentic, ’70s-era gay tchotchkes to decorate the set. We put out a call. We’ll see what we get.”

Going off-script at every show

Walking onstage without any idea of what will happen sounds like an actor’s nightmare. But in “An Oak Tree,” which runs June 13-22 at the Charlestown Working Theater, the blank slate is exactly the point.

At each performance, an actor who has not read the script will be guided through the play by another who is responsible for making sure the audience is rooted in the story.

“Many new plays are very literal,” says Darren Evans, whose company, Theatre on Fire, is producing “An Oak Tree.” “There’s no room for the imagination — in an art form created to engage the audience’s imagination — to create the world onstage.”

The action of the play follows a stage hypnotist who recruits an actor to play opposite him. The hypnotist describes the character the actor will play in great detail: He’s a grieving father, wearing a Gortex jacket, his fingernails are dirty, he’s 47 years old. The actor, however, can be any gender, age, or ethnicity, says Evans. The play hinges on the audience’s ability to “see” the character that is described and experience the emotions that drive the story.

“Playwright and actor Tim Crouch is fascinated by the power of auto-suggestion,” says Evans, whose company has always pushed boundaries with surprising plays and productions. “The play’s subtitle is ‘A theatrical experiment,’ because he’s exploring how the unconscious mind can affect reality.”

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Evans turned to Elliot Norton Award-winning director A. Nora Long to helm “An Oak Tree” because, he says, she knows how to balance the play’s complicated elements.

As the hypnotist, Evans and Long cast Michael Carr, a relative newcomer to Boston.

The role requires an actor who is generous while also having enough confidence and stage presence to create the atmosphere that helps the audience — and the guest actor — step into the experience. The hypnotist sometimes feeds the guest actor lines, while also directing the newbie on where to stand.

“There is a mystery to it that makes it fun,” Evans says. “At the same time, nothing is hidden. We’re not being cheeky about ‘pretending’ to select a volunteer from the audience. There’s not a lot of artifice, which reveals a strong emotional core and the power of the imagination to connect.”

Tickets are $20 and available at www.theatreonfire.org.

THE VIEW UPSTAIRS

Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At the Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, May 31-June 22. Tickets: $25-$60, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com


Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.