‘Playland’ Review: A Haunting Collage of Queer History Comes to Life

Queer history cannot escape its own evanescence. Neither can queer spaces, really. To judge by the conceit behind Georden West’s fabulous, if oblique, “Playland,” such ephemerality is precisely what makes such a history and such spaces so ripe for memorializing. In this case, West has turned his attention to the Playland Café which, over its storied tenure from 1937 to 1998, became a fixture of the Boston gay scene. Rather than narrativize the bar’s own story, West opts for a collage-like approach, conjuring up figures from the bar’s many pasts in intersecting vignettes that together capture the spirit of the Playland Café, both at its glory and now following its demise.

At the center of “Playland” is an interdisciplinary (transdisciplinary, even) sensibility. West’s film builds itself out with the use of archival images, historical audio clips, choreographed numbers and glittering tableaux vivants. This is an excavated history that requires collapsing and colliding worlds and words. Indeed, the film imagines the bar calling forth some of the figures that haunted its halls over the decades. As title cards at the start of the film inform us, that includes not just Lady (“The Owner”) and Viv (“The Bartender”) who play host to this self-described Play (the film features an “entracte”!), but Tangerine (“A Burlesque Dancer”) from 1943, Frankie (“A Dishwasher”) from 1965 as well as Hella (“A Deejay”) from 1977 and recurring players (1965-1992) like Sunday (“A Drag Queen”) and Tex (“A Server”).

Taking place mostly in the dilapidated ruins of a reconstructed Playland Café, replete with a pink neon sign, tinsel stage backdrops and even a sterile kitchen, West’s film brims with theatrical flair. As Lady, for instance, Danielle Cooper dons a full leather ensemble (including a top hat and a pink flower embellishment) that all but makes them look like a ringleader-cum-emcee. It’s Lady who first greets us. It’s her stone-cold stare at the camera as she lights up a cigarette in an abandoned bar booth as authoritative voices recall how the Café was once shut down over alcohol license violations which quite literally sets the scene for what’s to come. The empty space will soon fill up with ghostly figures who will bring to life various eras, presenting a kaleidoscopic chronicle of what the Playland Café stood for in the Boston LGBTQ community.

Recruiting not just Lady Bunny (who gets quite a scene, featuring a swing of all things) and Cooper (of “Pose” fame) but a string of queer talent that includes Alvin Ailey dancer Miranda Quinn, burlesque performer Maine Anders and trans bodybuilder Mason Caminiti, West has been careful to invoke the spirit of the Playland Café, not just its hallowed halls. Every scene — or sequence, more like — anchors viewers in moments where the bar nurtured a community even as it faced violent threats from the outside world. Drag performances, burlesque acts, DJ sets and even impromptu dance numbers commingle with archival footage (visual and aural) that take us all the way from the bar’s early years where it battled local ordinances to later still when it couldn’t help but be embroiled in civil rights fights and pride celebrations.

The film’s most engaging moments come when such juxtapositions generate a thrilling way of cutting across space and time. Take a shot of two cooks (circa 1965) staring at the camera in wistful defiance as they read a copy of “Fag Rag” (founded in 1971). Scoring the still shot is the voice of one of the magazine’s founders as he regales his interlocutor with the story of how the publication came to be. Such vignettes are carefully art directed, made to look and feel like shadowboxes that, together, cobble up a vision of the Playland Café that refuses to be pinned to any one time.

This is precisely what happens in its climactic second act sequence where a performance of Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” helps marry high and low culture; Lady Bunny’s Sunday lip syncs in an outfit that screams Ziegfeld’s Follies while Lady, in her leather getup conducts from the side. Camp and melancholy are blended so skillfully that even without the requisite subtitles, you’d be bowled over by the overdetermined meanings of such a set piece.

If at times “Playland” feels more like an installation than a feature film — this is an experimental piece first and foremost, aligned with the work of Kenneth Anger, Derek Jarman and the like — the intellectual heft its creation requires is enough to make it an intriguing proposition. Not just as a way to (re)construct queer history but as a way of apprehending it, especially at a time when spaces like the Playland Café are at risk not just of disappearing but also of being outright forgotten. In that “Playland” stays true to the spirit of the Mark Doty poem it features and whose title it shares since here the Playland “is not a cafe, but a sort of sequin.” It glitters and sparkles precisely because it fends off the darkness that threatens to dim its light, its beauty, its sorrows.

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