Kevin Rolston's 'Deal With The Dragon'

by Christopher J. Beale

Bay Area Reporter

Tuesday July 26, 2022

Kevin Rolston in 'Deal With The Dragon' at the Magic Theatre
Kevin Rolston in 'Deal With The Dragon' at the Magic Theatre  

"Shame is a really tricky beast," said gay San Francisco-based playwright and actor Kevin Rolston, "[shame] hides things from you and whispers in your ear that you're not good enough."

Rolston's new solo play, "Deal With The Dragon," running through August 14 at the Magic Theatre, was inspired by the Alan Downs' book "The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man's World" and Rolston's own suburban Pennsylvania upbringing.

"I grew up in literally the sociology textbook example of suburbia," said Rolston of Levittown, Pennsylvania, "they just pumped out ticky, tacky houses, little copies of each other." Rolston said that underneath the tidiness of his suburban upbringing there was a dark side: "I grew up in a very blue collar, working class, homophobic, and racist environment."

Rolston recalls the first time he thought he might be gay.

"I was like 10 and he was probably 11," Rolston said of one of his childhood friends. "We started playing behind my house and sort of just started bumping each other nakedly." Rolston wouldn't come out until college, but that moment awakened something in Rolston who said, "How exciting it was, this moment of like, oh, this is an option!"

Rolston is a lifelong lover of reading, the more advanced the literature the better. The category he loved most in high school was forensics. Not forensics like in "C.S.I.", but speech-based literature and its presentation. Categories like speech, debate, storytelling, and theater.

"I was just devouring pretty intense plays like 'Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf' at the age of 14 or 15. But," Rolston said, "I didn't really have access to see them financially, so my first relationship with theater was on the page."

Rolston eventually found a creative outlet in standup comedy. "I didn't know anyone, no one knew me. I didn't have any connections, so I just did open mic nights."

Rolston said those nights in front of unpredictable crowds gave him a fearlessness that he traces directly to that experience. That fearlessness has been on display for much of Rolston's theatrical career, at least the part that is made up of original works.

"I did flounder for a number of years, trying to be a theater artist for hire," said Rolston, "And it was just making me wildly unhappy."

Kevin Rolston in 'Deal With The Dragon' at the Magic Theatre
Kevin Rolston in 'Deal With The Dragon' at the Magic Theatre  (Source: Ben Krantz Studio)

Crystal Christian
Remember Ted Haggard — the Colorado Springs megachurch pastor with a history of homophobic politics and rhetoric — who had a very famous fall from grace in 2006? That story inspired Rolston to finally write an idea he had been mulling over for years. That idea became Rolston's first play, "Crystal Christian."

" 'Crystal Christian' was in response to homophobic evangelical preachers who get caught with a gay sex worker doing crystal meth," said Rolston bluntly, "That archetype, that just doesn't seem to stop, it just keeps coming."

After staging a summer workshop production at the Magic Theatre, Rolston was never able to completely return to being an actor for hire.

"The passion had gone out of it, and I realized I needed to tell these stories," Rolston said. These stories, specifically, are gay stories, something Rolston said is lacking in modern theater.

"Theater is glacially slow when it comes to queer representation, I think," said Rolston.

But slow is not a pace theater can maintain if it wishes to survive in an on-demand world with so many entertainment options. How can theater get better?

"For me, it always comes back to the playwright," Rolston said without irony. "Find a potential voice that's not common and invest in that voice. And support theaters."

Dragon's Lair
In "Deal with the Dragon," which Rolston wrote and stars in, he plays all three characters in the show. The first is an artist struggling to land a gallery show at a respected museum, the second a patron with a dark side who looks out for the artist, and, finally, a flamboyant rival to spice things up.

The production that just opened at the Magic Theatre is a retooled version of the original which was selected as one of the top 20 theater shows to see at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe by The List, out of more than 900 entrants.

"Ultimately, 'Deal with the Dragon' is about shame," said Rolston. "In this case from growing up queer and the rage that can grow out of that."

In this production we see that shame take different forms throughout the life of the protagonist through flashbacks. "Deal with the Dragon" is well-staged, the perfect length at just over an hour, and is acted masterfully.

On opening night, Rolston channeled the late actor Robin Williams, effortlessly changing accents and body language to shift between various characters in conversation with one another. His mastery of each role's nuances and quirks kept the interweaving stories easy to follow.

One particularly honest moment at a recovery meeting seemed ripped directly from the soul of Rolston, who has been sober for a decade. He wept through the entire scene.

Kevin Rolston's 'Deal With The Dragon,' 8 pm Thursday-Saturday, and 3pm Sundays through August 13 at the Magic Theatre. Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd. $20-70. www.magictheatre.org

Hear Kevin Rolston's interview with Christopher J. Beale on Out in the Bay, airing July 29. www.outinthebay.org


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