Walking into the Den Theatre to see a performance of Laced at first feels like walking into the friendliest neighborhood LGBT joint you know. You are struck by the enormous circular bar in the middle of the floor (designed by Sydney Lynne) and the myriad flags and lights in rainbow and trans colors. If you’ve taken a moment to glance at the advertisement you received as a “ticket,” you will know you’ve entered a place called Maggie’s and that it feels warm and friendly.
And then you start realizing that things are not quite right. There are torn pride flags here and there. Some of those lights are falling, having been yanked down from the ceiling. Piles of broken glass and other refuse ring some of the tables. And, most horrific of all, huge spray-painted red lettering on the floor, the walls, the artwork, and the bar itself screams hateful slurs at the owners and patrons. This is the morning after a hate crime.
As Sam Mueller’s play begins to unwind, we discover it is even more than that. This is Orlando, just a few months after the horrific shootings at the Pulse nightclub. It is also just after the election of Donald Trump has freed the haters to strike out even more boldly. It is a moment in time when everything that had seemed possible and so within reach felt that it was suddenly crashing down. And here, in this one small club, three bartenders are witnessing the shattering of their world.
“Maggie,” it turns out, is a bit of a wishy-washy boss and has vanished suddenly off to the Caribbean, leaving these three, under the leadership of Minnow (Daniela Martinez), to keep things afloat. And last night, someone managed to secret him, her, or themselves in the club after it closed and did a number on it. Minnow has been silently trying to clean up for several hours when her friends and fellow employees Audra (Mariah Copeland) and Cat (Collin Quinn Rice) arrive. What follows is an attempt to figure out just what happened by tapping their memories of the night before, but it is also a powerful venting of emotions and a proof of mutual support. As they shift in and out of the events of last night, the three bartenders laugh, cry, yell, comfort each other, and try to figure out how to come to grips with this violation of what had been their safe space.
That’s the thing, after all: these people (and the audience by extension) feel vandalized and depressed. The pain and the loss threaten more than their bar, though; along with the politics of the moment, it feels like a clear sign that they may never be safe again.
In the flashbacks, director Lexi Saunders and her cast bring us right into the pumping music and pulsating lights (courtesy of Thomas Dixon and Heather Sparling, respectively) of a busy night at the bar. The bartenders joke and drink and pour drinks and clean up, doing that repetitive dance that bartenders do to keep the crowds happy. Minnow, probably a bit drunk, dances on the bar. The empathetic Cat works to figure out why Audra seems a bit down. All three complain about the absent Maggie (though acknowledging that she created this vibrant space). And all the while the music plays and the lights move and the little club feels alive. But then everything stops, the lights change, and we are left with three people struggling to make any sense of all of this, unsure if it is even important to figure out who might have done it, looking for an answer to an even larger question: how can they possibly move on?
Mueller’s script is clever as it unfolds two events at the same time while slowly allowing us to get to know these three young people who have so much of themselves tied up in this bar. Minnow is a lesbian—Maggie’s former lover, now struggling to make a new connection. Audra is a bisexual woman currently in a happy relationship with a man (which she finds herself having to justify to her family, in the “so you’re not gay? vein). Cat is non-binary—maybe trans, who knows?—with a heart the size of Florida. Cat also seems to share their emotions less easily than the others, but it is Cat who, in a reluctant but show-stopping delivery of an autobiographical spoken word poem, metaphorically flings their soul wide open. Rice delivers this speech with energy, zest, and powerful emotion: it’s as bare as their character can get, and digs deeply into the pain and fear of being LGBTQIA+ in Trump’s world.
Martinez, meanwhile, carefully allows us to see her character trying desperately not to give in to that pain and fear, but it’s a struggle when her home has been invaded and violated. Can she keep herself and her friends safe in the face of this kind of hatred? Can any of them? While Minnow seeks the answer, Audra’s emotions are compounded by problems that existed before any of this. Like the others, Copeland makes her character entirely sympathetic. Credit the performances, but also the writing and Saunders’ direction: this entire play feels extremely personal. It isn’t of the magnitude of the Pulse tragedy, but it is in some way just as bad: there, the shooter wantonly ended lives with the indiscriminate power of a gun; here, someone had to be completely hands-on as they ripped into these lives.
Laced is a study of struggling with the aftermath of a violent, personal act. But it is also more: it is a show of faith in the power of human beings to come together even in the face of hatred and ugliness. And if its final scene, from which it derives its title, feels a bit facile, so what? There is nothing wrong with simple messages, and the acknowledgment that we are all in this mess together is a very important one these days…and one that far too many people apparently have never learned.
Laced plays through April 16 at the Den Theatre. Tickets are available from them or at aboutfacetheatre.com.