Retaining the kiss of reality

April 29, 2000|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In transforming his one-man play into a movie, David Drake avoided the filmmaking tendency to "open up" the material.

"There would be 73 characters if I opened it up traditionally," he says, "and you'd need 17 or 18 locations, and it'd become a $25 million movie." Instead Drake kept to an infinitely smaller budget and turned his 1992 off-Broadway play, "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me," into a small independent movie.

Writer-performer Drake admits that "to accommodate the camera" he did change his performance style -- but only slightly. After all, his play is about the connection between life and theater: the plays that influenced him and the theatricalism often found in gay culture and political activism. "There's the mistaken assumption that film acting must always be smaller and more real. As a result, I see actors acting for film, bringing things down, and that's what they're playing. They're playing technique."

While "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me" is receiving its U.S premiere at the Maryland Film Festival tonight 9 at the Charles Theater, Drake and his play are not new to the area.

Drake, 36, performed "Kramer" at the Theatre Project in May 1999 and the film of the one-man show was shot there then.

The actor grew up in Harford County, and his play has intensely localized references. He talks about a boyhood shopping trip to Golden Ring Mall and how, as an impressionable 16-year-old, he was moved by a gay character's monologue in a touring production of "A Chorus Line" at the Morris Mechanic Theatre.

Drake, who got early acting experience at Baltimore theaters including Spotlighters, has gone on to such New York acting credits as "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom" and the beauty pageant-spoofing "Pageant" (he embodied Miss Deep South), and small roles in movies including "Philadelphia."

The seven vignettes in his play encompass childhood experiences, teen-age anxiety about his homosexuality, the influence Larry Kramer's AIDS-themed 1985 play "The Normal Heart" had on Drake's gay activism, and such gay-associated settings as discos and gymnasiums. Drake's play documents late 20th century gay life so faithfully one can't help wondering how its screen adaptation will play to movie audiences of the early 21st century.

"My play witnesses a particular moment in my history and in gay history, and that's never going to change," Drake says from his New York home. "Certain aspects of the play are very specific to a particular time in my life and what AIDS meant to us."

But the core issues, such as "coming to terms with homophobia in the United States," remain relevant, he says. "In some ways, sadly, it's still unbelievably the same as when I wrote it."

Just as the thematic material still resonates, Drake says the play itself only needed minor revisions when he turned it into a screenplay. "In my writing, I get to jump ahead in time [from one short scene to the next]. It's already very cinematic in a way."

Working closely with Drake on the transition was director Tim Kirkman, 33, who previously directed an autobiographical documentary film, "Dear Jesse," about growing up gay in North Carolina, where Jesse Helms is a gay-hostile U.S. senator. (Kirkman appeared with "Dear Jesse" in a Cinema Sundays program at the Charles Theater last May.)

"Certainly there is precedent for a performance piece going from stage to screen with performers like Spalding Gray," Kirkman says. "There was the challenge of seeing what I could do cinematically with the incredible constrictions" of a one-man show that relies on a compact stage space and few props.

Kirkman hopes his mobile camera work prevents the filmed play from seeming static. "The theater audience can't be in the space with David, and I had the camera up into his face, circling him, above him, prowling" around the Theatre Project's stage.

The director laughs that the five-day shoot was "insane," but that the hectic filmmaking schedule is now long behind them. Indeed, "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me" recently had its first screening at a gay and lesbian film festival in London.

Drake may be back in town again in the near future. He's writing another autobiographical play, which he'd like to perform at the Theatre Project.

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