ORLANDO – It’s the early 1970s, Nixon is president, and in one older neighborhood in Milwaukee, it’s just not that easy anymore to run a small bar.
Ricky, also known as Swinging Dick, thinks the best way to lure in customers isn’t better beer, but better talent on the stage, so he starts hiring women to do topless dancing, including his on-again, off-again girlfriend Betty. She gets on stage, starts to dance, and off comes her top – and with that, Ricky assumes, will be the key to saving his failing corner bar.
Now Ricky, it should be noted, is a man of some old fashioned morals. When he notices two gay customers sitting at a table, he kicks them out – this topless bar, he stresses, is a respectable joint and doesn’t service their kind. The gay couple, it turns out, have shown up not for the Budweiser but to see Ricky’s newest act, Fanny – which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Why would two gay guys hang out in a cheap bar waiting to see a female stripper?
Well, let’s just say Ricky didn’t do his homework before he hired Fanny – like take a closer look at his new “talent” and discover that she is in actuality a he. Fanny may fit into a tight skirt and walk elegantly in heels, and her wig fits nicely, but underneath the padded bra she’s all man.
What have I done, Ricky sighs in exasperation as he tosses his hands in the air. His malaise gets even worse when Fanny points out that Ricky signed a contract with her – um, him … well, her – and he’s stuck with the act.
Running a respectable topless bar just is not what it used to be.
The Orlando International Fringe Theater Festival is known for original productions that strive, as much as is humanly possible, to be offbeat, crazy, weird, experimental and sometimes flat-out controversial. So far, the 20th annual Fringe – which continues today though Memorial Day Weekend – is no exception. The irony is that this production – which has one of the longest titles, “Big Swinging Dick’s Topless Bar Presents: The Naked Drag Queen Farting” – may actually be one of the more traditional. Kind of.
Written by Al Pergande, a veteran Fringe writer who also writes for Ink19.com, and directed by Desmond Flynn, “Big Swinging Dick’s” is a breezy, easygoing comedy about one man’s sometimes stumbling efforts to prove that capitalism truly does work, assuming you can figure out where your market niche is. As the play opens, Dick’s Topless Bar appears to have a bleak future; if it doesn’t shut down for lack of business, it could get taken by the city of Milwaukee through eminent domain — at least that’s what the neighborhood bar fly claims. He predicts the city will pave over the bar to build a new expressway, and he hopes to tap into that by buying up older buildings and then reselling them to the city at a tidy profit once the expressway has been built.
Ricky decides to take a similar approach, introducing topless dancers to his patrons, and then discovering that a truly good drag queen can diversify his audience quite a bit. He learns that gays are okay when they pay, and that Dick’s Topless Bat may actually stick around if it offers something for everyone.
Pergande and Flynn take a similar approach. Pergande said he wrote the play after Fringe, in one particular year, offered up more than its share of gay-themed plays with male nudity. Why not do a play with a little female nudity, he asked.
At the same time, Paul Horan is so good as Fanny that “Big Swinging Dick’s” crossover appeal should be obvious, if not irresistable. Rather than play Fanny in a flamboyant, over-the-top, Ru Paul-esque manner, Horan plays it “straight,” giving us a drag queen that’s street smart, a shrewd business operator, and a pretty classy dame to boot. Dispensing advice on love, business and heartaches, Horan is so good that the play’s lack of a real plot – understandable for a 45 minute show – doesn’t seem to matter. Every minute Horan is on stage, he completely dominates it – no moment more hilariously than when Fanny zeroes in on a fire inspector there to warn Ricky that the building violates city codes.
Mike Maples also scores well as Ricky, the bar owner forced to adopt to changing times, while Erick Kuritzky is perfect as the kind of bay fly every neighborhood bar truly does seem to have – chatty, with an opinion on everything, and never without a beer bottle in his hand.
“Big Swinging Dick’s,” then, is an opportunity to spend an hour in that little bar, watching how opportunity sometimes knocks in surprising ways. And yesssirree, folks, that Drag Queen is sure worth the price of admission.
The play is being performed in the Green Venue at the Orlando Repertory Theatre in Loch Haven Park. It has one more performance on Saturday at 8:45 p.m.
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