Clever new musical tackles the issue of LGBT bullying and suicide with humor and grace.
Part of the thrill of the Fringe Festival is that you never know what you're going to get. It might be a great performance, and it might be so incredibly strange that you walk out of the theater unsure of what you've just seen. But sometimes, you come across a show so spectacular, so clever and innovative that you're amazed it isn't on Broadway already. Vestments of the Gods is that show.
With book and lyrics by Owen Panettieri, music by David Carl and directed by Joey Brenneman, Vestments of the Gods is the story of one special day, Halloween, in Ms. Mene's sixth grade class at Thebes Street Elementary School. Every sign is pointing to it being a great day until gender-nonconforming student Hayden shows up dressed as "Jesus of Fabuleth," and to deflect the subsequent teasing his best friend Annie, who has not dressed up at all, claims to be in costume as the prophet Muhammad.
Events spiral out of control quickly, as kids from the class text friends and family that someone in their class is dressed as a terrorist, meddling moralist Christian mother Vera shows up to wrest control of the situation away from Principal Creon and no one is quite sure who is at fault. It is a world of uncomfortable moral grays, in which the class of kids are sometimes supportive of Hayden and Annie and sometimes brutally cruel, and their teacher is left trying to explain why it isn't worth it to fight for the rights of an assistant teacher fired for hinting to the class that he is gay.
Fighting for What's Right
If there is one thing this play proves, it is this: if you want a foolproof test of whether a law or policy makes sense, try to explain it to a twelve-year-old. Annie's crusade to correct the injustices the PTA is committing against Hayden and Mr. Neeces, the assistant teacher, are the driving force of the play, even as we also witness Ms. Mene and Creon struggling to placate Vera before she endangers Hayden's place at school any more than she already has.
The play has much in common with 2005 Broadway musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, in that it uses a primarily prepubescent cast going through an exciting event for a group their age (a spelling bee, a Halloween assembly) to address larger issues that we often do not consider them old enough to be dealing with. The Halloween setting also allows for a set of fantastic costumes, adding touches of humor to the play without distracting from the larger issues it addresses.
But the reality is, in an age in which elementary school students have access to cell phones in school and the darkest reaches of the Internet, that conversation does need to happen. And while Vestments of the Gods deals mostly with LGBT issues, it also touches on sexism and racism/Islamophobia in a compassionate and nuanced way.
Panettieri based the story of his play roughly on Sophocles's Antigone, and the connections between the two plays are clever and meaningful without hitting you over the head with them. While an informed audience member will recognize "Thebes" and beleaguered ruler Creon, the link is most evident with Annie, whose earnest crusade for justice for the unfairly dismissed Mr. Neeces would do Antigone proud. And of course, the janitor spouting wisdom (or common sense) while dressed as a fortune teller was a nice touch, a call out to the oracle so crucial to the ancient Thebes plays.
Favorite scenes include the showdowns between Terry the oracle/janitor and vicious PTA president Vera, Annie's Harry Potter dream sequence that neatly demonstrates her innocence and adult sensibilities all in one and the bullying scenes, in which the students surround Hayden and use the power of the Greek choral voice to reveal the true horror of "everyday" bullying. The music likewise alternates between hilarious and haunting, while always expertly sung by the chorus of students, and I am particularly partial to the "Ghosts in Ms. Mene's Room" melody.
Erica Diaz shines as Annie, the earnest best friend who risks everything for the people she loves. Other standout performances include Scott Schafer as the sympathetic Principal Creon who must protect the children from the school board at the expense of his beliefs, Sean Bennett Geoghan as Hayden who demonstrates the true terror of bullied children and Jennifer Lauren Brown as the gentle but fiercely protective Ms. Mene. And of course, Jennifer Cody plays the villain Vera Harper to perfection.
I do wish that the character of Vera could have been more sympathetic--not because I have any doubt that people like her exist in the world, but because in a play so nuanced and with so many moral grays, a character so evil and so easily hated stands out. I also wanted to know more about the mysterious students who attack Hayden, as we seem to lose track of them with everything else that happens in the ending of the play.
But those are just minor qualms in what is otherwise a nearly flawless production. It isn't often that you can actually say a play made you both laugh and cry, but this one did. If this musical does not come back to New York soon, I will be sorely disappointed. There are no caveats to this one: go see this show.
Vestments of the Gods plays as part of the New York International Fringe Festival at Theater 80, 80 St. Marks Place. Remaining performances are on August 22 at 7:45pm and the 24th at 1pm.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.