Pandora Productions’ current offering, “The Nance,” explores a moment in performing and LGBTQ history that allows an examination of the human heart, as well as a deep look into “the difference between what we know and what we can say,” to paraphrase lead character Chauncey Miles.
Miles (Jason Cooper) makes his living playing a nance. That’s a stock character from the bawdy days of classic burlesque and vaudeville. It’s the stereotypical effeminate gay man who makes sexual double entendres. In the old days, this character could be found in one iteration or another in performing venues all over the world, and it’s a comedic type that survived in film and theater long after vaudeville declined in popularity.
The catch is, of course, Miles is actually a gay man in a time when being gay could land you in jail for deviant behavior. On stage, he can be as gay as he wants, but in his private life, he must be circumspect.
The emotional heart of the piece hangs around a budding relationship between Miles and Ned (Bryce Wiebe), a rube who’s just moved to New York City. Further complicating the action are the political winds that threaten Miles’ way of life and the rest of the performers in his burlesque troupe.
Between the politics and the love story, we get plenty of play-within-a-play as we see comedic skits and burlesque numbers. These moments are when this show is at its best.
Cooper has wonderful and undeniable comedic timing. He most frequently shares vaudeville scenes with Jeff Ketterman’s Ephraim, who is a joy to watch. Ephraim is the crusty and conservative older comedian and club owner. I’d happily watch these two do vaudeville all night.
There also is a lot more burlesque in the show than I was expecting. Sylvie (Anna Meade), Joan (Amanda Kyle Lahti) and Carmen (Mandi Elkins Hutchins) turn in several enjoyable dance numbers, some with plenty of clothes on, some with rather less clothing. They also get some chances to do comedic bits with the boys and acquit themselves reasonably well.
Meade’s Sylvie has a particularly nice comedic scene or two and is given a little more heavy lifting to do in the more dramatic moments. She’s a Communist, and Miles is a staunch Republican. Many of the political explorations in the play come from arguments between the two.
Wiebe’s Ned is lovable as the somewhat “aw shucks” love interest, but his character isn’t written with a lot of complexity, so Weibe doesn’t have much room for exploration.
It’s in some of the romantically fraught moments and political debates where this production struggles. It never quite matches the oomph and verve of the vaudeville scenes. Perhaps it’s just the tonal whiplash.
The love story treads the well-trod ground of many LGBTQ plays before it, including Pandora’s recent production of “Boys in the Band.” When all of society tells you that you are worthless and dirty, how do you love yourself or have a healthy relationship with your partner? It’s potent dramatic material, but these scenes all played just a little slow.
While its social commentary and politics don’t always land dramatically, they give plenty of food for thought. When Miles describes the way a popular gay meet-up spot was raided by police, it’s hard not to think of the recent kerfuffle over Vapor in Smoketown.
Likewise, when city officials come to the burlesque club and the dancers have to worry about nipple slips, one might recall that in 2017, it’s currently illegal for strips clubs in Louisville to show nipples, and current burlesque troupes still have to worry about the same restrictions that plagued their predecessors.
At two hours, the play felt overly long, which owes a lot to the scenic design by Eric Allgeier. While the set is beautiful and well constructed, the choice was made to present the burlesque club in front of a velvet curtain downstage, and the backstage and apartment scenes up stage, necessitating a big scene change between every scene.
While those individual changes were impressive for their fluidity and relative speed, the sheer number of them must have added 10 minutes to the show and frequently derailed the pace. These breaks in the momentum likely are responsible for the sluggish pace in a couple of the dramatic scenes. A more effective use of the ample space in the Henry Clay Theater might have allowed Allgeier to show off the lush production values without sacrificing speed.
Despite some shortcomings, the comedy, dancing and food for thought makes this production well worth attending. “The Nance” continues March 16-19 at the Henry Clay, 604 S. Third St. Tickets start at $20.