The encounters are certainly of the queer and curious kind in the new production Curious Queer Encounters at 7 Stages through May 14. The unusual show, part of an ongoing series, presents seven interactive works by various Atlanta-based artists and ensembles, all curated by 7 Stages artistic director Michael Haverty. In this go-round, all the works are related to the theme of queer identity.
The performances don’t just appear on the main stage, nor are they confined to the smaller black box space in back. Instead they sprawl throughout the entire venue and even beyond it onto Euclid Avenue outside. Viewers encounter performances in the lobby, backstage, in the dressing rooms and in the halls.
A great deal of the fun and energy of experiencing the production derives from its sense of exploration and discovery. A topsy-turvy, slightly spooky, fun-house playfulness pervades the whole arrangement, making for an evening that seems, by turns, exciting, silly, dangerous, sexy and decidedly strange.
The bar at the adjacent Java Lords Cafe is open and easily accessible throughout the show, and some theater patrons seemed to enjoy walking through Curious Queer Encounters with a drink in hand. This isn’t a plug for the business; I just think they had precisely the right idea.
Two of the most aesthetically inventive and well-executed pieces — Jim Grimsley’s Changing Room directed by Heidi S. Howard and Activation directed by Michael Haverty — are almost claustrophobic in their sense of intimacy, but the strangeness of their unfolding imagery is totally captivating.
Short films by Matthew Terrell are certainly some of the strongest and most memorable work in the show, but, by nature, film is too static for this particular setting, and the aesthetic of the films themselves — stark, personal, autobiographical, narrative, confessional — seems somehow at odds with the more performative, fantastical and imagistic strategies of Curious Queer Encounter’s other pieces.
Terrell’s short films do, however, contrast intriguingly with the interspersed archival short films of Dick Richards, who captured the Atlanta gay and punk scenes of the ’80s and ’90s. If Richards’ lost gay world is celebratory, giddy, communal, Terrell’s present one is radioactively anxious, inward-looking, solitary. Artist Lavonia Elberton mashes up religious iconography with drag in a classically Southern gothic performance that’s part Mary Magdalene, part John the Baptist, part New Age sermon.
Overall, the various works are totally distinct from each other, and that very quality, which often plays out as a strength, can also play out as a weakness. Many of the show’s powerful images and aesthetic environments feel incomplete or inconclusive on their own, and that frustrating aspect of the works is amplified, rather than diminished, by placing them together. Most of the pieces are abstract and suggest situations or environments rather than deepen into narrative; it cumulatively creates an overarching sense of jumbled haphazardness. Compounding this is the fact that getting from one performance to another, though not outrageously difficult, isn’t always intuitive; sometimes it’s hard to tell where one work ends and another begins.
In Curious Queer Encounters, there’s no plot or story per se, and no gasp-inducing surprises or scares, but still the works show a powerful sense of slightly spooky, exploratory play. Our encounters with mysterious things tend to leave only fleeting traces behind, remembered images and unresolved, unsettled feelings. Even if this effect doesn’t entirely satisfy as theater, the work in Curious Queer Encounters is still bound to haunt and linger in the mind.