Neoteric and innovative “PLAYLAND” tells the story of Playland Cafe, a haven for Boston’s LGBTQ+ community | Tribeca 2023 review

With a haunting Warhol-esque presentation of imagery and an artful gaze worthy of comparison to Peter Greenway and Derek Jarman Georden West’s “Playland” is an unquestionably unique experience. 

The film is, at once, a documentary and an avant-garde reenactment that examines Boston’s Playland Café; a haven to the city’s gay community and one where members of the LGTBQ+ community could come together in united self-expression from 1937 until it was closed by force in 1998.

The picture is without narrative, told only through imagery and performance art that weaves the real and the surreal into a pastiche of inventive ideas.

West crafts the work with actual audio clips and images from the time, while using staged performance piece representations of what we hear to be the tumultuous relationship the city had with the Playland Café. Through this inventive and distinctive style, West plays to the emotions of the people who frequented the bar and the controversy that surrounded it. There are moments of tension and unsettling drama blended with a reverence for a time now gone, but never forgotten.

“Playland” uses well-designed sets that replicate the Playland Café during its heyday and after its closing, giving the film a free-flowing style that lends itself to the askew presentation. Empty spaces become populated with human representations of the gay communities of Boston as the sets are displayed to invoke the changing moods dictated by the archival audio. There are moments that are completely alive yet peppered with a sadness that lives in the legacy of the Playland.

Coupled with Russell Sheaffer’s editing, Sarah Kahl and Brent Garbowski’s production design is the star of the piece entire.

Popular drag performers Danielle Cooper and Lady Bunny are two of the film’s main “characters”. Cooper is the unnamed (and silent) ringmaster of the proceedings while Lady Bunny has an array of moments where we are reminded that time cannot dim what always shone bright.

Filled with a cast of wide-ranging talent representing the Queer community, West tells his story with colorful burlesque performances, wild dance numbers, lip synched acts, and sometimes haunting choreography that gives life to the ghosts of the past.

The film is not so much an experiment as it is experimental. Director West and his cast and crew certainly have a tactical vision and pull out all the stops to ensure this will be a distinctive viewing experience. 

While the film may have moments where its artistic wheels get stuck in the muck of repetition, West finds some interesting moments and the occasional surprise of emotion. 

By film’s end, the is no questioning the Playland Café’s place in the hearts of those who experienced it and the impact it had on the LGBTQ+ community of Boston. 

As defining oneself as Queer in today’s world transcends the perceived limits of sexuality, Georden West punches through the boundaries of modern cinematic storytelling. 

“Playland” is a neoteric and innovative visual experience and a love letter to a specific place and time that meant so much to so many. 

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