Ion theatre opens their Off-the-Radar series with the San Diego premiere of Tom Jacobson’s two-person play that showcases a dark side of Southern California’s history with the LGBTQ community.
The true story focuses on two actors at the start of the 20th Century, Warren and Brown, hired throughout Southern California to deceive gay men into revealing themselves. At the time, homosexuality was illegal under penalty of fines, public shaming, and imprisonment. The title refers to the advent of zippers into American fashion and how they subsequently allow for easy access and speedy closure during sexual encounters, particularly for gay men.
Warren and Brown, the two actors in the story, portray all relevant people: everyone from police officers and journalists to the gay men they entrap. As such, the real-life actors who portray these characters portraying characters take on a massive undertaking. Ion's Richard Johnson and Colton Iverson swiftly shift from person to person using voice and gesture. Staged around posts with coat hooks holding an array of hats, scarves, jackets, and props, they also adeptly utilize hanging items, switching out pieces as needed.
From his silent waiting as audiences enter, Brown goes on an epic journey. Iverson shines as Brown. He captures the vulnerability and compassion of a starving artist desperate to work but whose conscience makes him question the ethics of what they do. Both strong and soft, commanding yet adaptable, Iverson knows his craft and showcases his artistic range.
Johnson’s Warren nails the extremes of his different characters. Warren is mastermind behind the deceptions for catching homosexual men in what were dubbed to be lewd acts at the time. Johnson appropriately terrifies and frustrates, justifying his motives while simultaneously resisting sympathy. However, Johnson’s softened and believable portrayal of gay men trying to live freely without persecution shows his range as an actor.
Although sometimes their accents make characters difficult to distinguish in an already complicated play, both actors show tremendous bravery in tackling these sizable roles that require they make themselves vulnerable to each other and audiences. There is not one reason to see this show, but two: Johnson and Iverson. Their dedication and conviction to this show and what it does radiates.
Directed and designed by executive artistic director Claudio Raygoza, The Twentieth Century Way has impressive delivery for a play that moves quickly and cannot slow down. This speaks to both the agility of the actors and Raygoza’s precise direction.
The Twentieth Century Way contains nudity and is for mature audiences. The nudity, however, adds power to the message. Ion theatre has caught lightning in a bottle with excellent performances by strong actors and well-thought-out staging. The Twentieth Century Way is a 21st Century must-see play, and Ion's production provides a fantastic opportunity to experience it.