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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Review- Pie-Face! The Adventures of Anita Bryant (FringeNYC)

The Fab Marquee review by Karen Tortora-Lee.

"At least it was a fruit pie" said Anita Bryant right after she was smacked in the face with a pie on national TV during a 1977 press conference being broadcast live from Des Moines, Iowa. Why was she pied in the face? Why did she quip about fruit? And more importantly: Who the hell is Anita Bryant?

©Dixie Lee Photography
Well, sadly, I'm old enough to actually not only know who she is, but I remember vividly her Florida Orange Juice commercials, as well as her Save Our Children crusade (note: I was but a child myself, unaware that I was in need of her "saving"). But first... let me take you back .. back... back ...

It's the 1970s and the Gay Movement is in it's infancy. The Stonewall Riots have yet to celebrate their 10 year anniversary, and gays are still fighting an uphill battle. Anita Bryant, former beauty queen and spokeswoman for such iconic American brands as Florida Orange Juice, Coca Cola, Kraft Foods, Tupperware and Holiday Inn (what? No Chevrolet?) has discovered that there is a plague crossing this land, a plague called The Homosexuals. She vows to stop them any way she can. And so begins our story. Or rather, David Karl Lee's story: Pie-Face! The Adventures of Anita Bryant which he wrote and stars in (as that indomitable force, Ms. Bryant herself) under the direction of Kenny Howard.

The real show begins almost like a love-letter (after a brief sing-along) , with Mr. Lee done up in glorious Anita Bryant drag (thanks to costume designer Marcy Singhhaus and wig designer Rich Kuntz) and sashaying through a sunny pink set (also of Mr. Lee's creation) replete with lights that double as spotlights and microphones and plenty of delicious Florida Orange Juice on hand. Lee captivatingly lip syncs the Bryant tune "My Little Corner of the World" and soon, we're invited not only into Bryant's world, but into her head as well, where everything seems to be about America, Jesus, and America. Oh, and Jesus.

There's nothing like using someone's exact words against them, and Mr. Lee does an amazing job at highlighting some of the best Bryant gems while putting them all in clever context; through quick cuts of real and hyper-real news clips we're able to watch as Ms. Bryant takes to the roads like a twangy Evita, with just one mission propelling her: to Save Our Children. "Since The Homosexuals can't have children of their own, they must freshen their ranks with ours" she passionately explains, as she "drives" from one state to another, stopping along the road to sing a rousing Jesus-fueled song or plug one of her numerous products.

When Ken Kelly of Rolling Stone magazine asks if he can accompany her in order to do an in-depth interview she immediately agrees, and the use of a Ken doll is simultaneous funny, campy and solves a few staging problems all at once. Perched on his little couch Ken sits unmoving while his questions are pipped in over the audio -- it's amusing and effective to see Bryant earnestly talking to this doll and giving her ridiculous answers. "If gays are granted rights, next we'll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with St. Bernards and to nail biters."

Surprisingly (to Bryant) as she continues her crusade an enormous backlash starts to build, fueled by the Gay Rights Activists but strengthened by celebrities such as Paul Williams and others who support the Gay Movement. People start boycotting orange juice. The jokes start coming. ("Ms. Bryant, are you aware that there are now more jokes about you than there are about Polish people?"... oh, how deliciously un-PC the 70s were!) One by one the big brands pull Bryant as their spokeswoman. Her concerts become sparsely attended. Her talk show invitations are rescinded. Offers dry up, and people turn their backs on her - literally. In a recreation of this event Lee sings God Bless America and the audience was encouraged to stand and turn their backs on the performance. While it took a little courage for the first person to stand, soon enough the whole audience (save for 2 stick-in-the-muds) had our backs turned on Mr. Lee/Bryant and I must say it was rather satisfying.

Eventually Bryant begins to pour her heart out to Ken Kelly as she becomes more and more despondent. Unfortunately, in her vulnerable state, even more of her actual ignorance on the whole matter becomes stunningly apparent. For instance, while on the subject of the bible, Bryant insists that if you read it cover to cover, you'd know that homosexuality is wrong. "Where in the bible did you read that?" Ken asks. "Well, it's in there somewhere." "But didn't you just say you read it cover to cover?" "Well, I actually haven't... I wasn't raised a Catholic where you're taught to do such things..." then she goes on to babble something about God contradicting himself, but that's okay, because taken as a whole, the bible all makes sense.

Ultimately, the play does a great job utilizing the interview itself, (which was never published in Rolling Stone, but rather, was sold to Playboy, captioned "Cruising with Anita" and run next to explicit pictures from the NYC swinger's club, Plato's Retreat), old news footage, and Bryant's vocal recordings to piece together a part of history which now seems absurd when seen under the microscope.

In drag and lit just right David Karl Lee almost passes for Anita at times, especially when lip syncing. And again, Mr. Lee makes Bryant so appealing (or rather, Mr. Lee is so appealing when he channels Bryant) that it's a bit hard to completely demonize her or come away hating her. Feel sorry for her - yes. And not because she lost her sponsorships or her touring deals. But because the woman is so, so ignorant. But hate her... no, you just can't hate her. Mr. Lee must have realized how appealing he was, or someone must have mentioned it, because the last few minutes of the show provide a great epilogue where Lee comes out as himself, out of Bryant drag, explains what it means to inhabit the body, the clothes and the world of Bryant for an hour, and then proceeds to sing "My Little Corner of the World" with an updated, altogether personal arrangement. And at that moment it's the perfect footnote to all of this, the whole message suddenly comes together as well as the whole trajectory of how far the Gay Rights Movement has come... that a man, in drag, can embody and reclaim the woman who tried to keep him from having the right to do so. Now THAT is progress.

The New York International Fringe Festival
Kangagirl Productions present
Pie-Face! The Adventures of Anita Bryant
The Actor's Playhouse

Final performance: Saturday, August 29th @2:15PM. For more information visit

The Actor's Playhouse | 100 Seventh Avenue South | Manhattan.

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