Saturday, August 18, 2012

the unbearable lightness of being queer

As I’m leaving the bleachers I overhear a well-coifed elegant older woman in impeccable summer attire say to her friend “tasteful.” She liked the show, because it was, tasteful? I’m perplexed. I’ve just spent two hours out doors, something I try not to do unless I have a very good reason and a lot of mosquito repellent on hand. The show in question has made me laugh, cry, and shrink in bewilderment upon realizing, yet again, this late in the day, that yes, we really do still need plays like this in order to help people understand that being different doesn’t mean we should be punished. The Trillium foundation certainly agrees, having given the theatre one hundred and four thousand dollars to explore diversity themes ranging from queer identity to disability issues. We’ve come a long way, but we have miles to go before we sleep.
Go girls!! Trilliums (AS IN FOUNDATIONS) 
have always been my favorite flower. 
But I'm often torn between the pristine 
white ones and the rather ‘queer’ looking 
pale purple genre.

The current 4th Line Theatre production of acclaimed enfant terrible playwright Sky Gilbert’s St. Francis of Millbrook, opened last week and it is a wildly entertaining cultural phenomenon to behold. Under the superb layered direction of Kim Blackwell, a succession of heavily populated scenes, inhabited by professional and skilled amateur thespians, reveals Gilbert’s knack for immaculate structure in the midst of narrative mayhem. Admittedly,[1] Gilbert has constructed this commissioned piece for a very particular audience. And yet, the myth of cottage country small town spectatorship[2] runs rampant as one watches onlookers from a variety of predominantly white middle class, and beyond, experience respond favorably to this lush panoply of very queer consciousness as it makes its way through a forest of heteronormative desire.

Ellen Ray Hennessey in a lead role superbly guides a wonderful ensemble through a fabulous and familiar story of growing up gay in a rural community.  Gilbert’s script has combined the perfect cultural elements, both past and present - and future. The nineteen sixties, the truly memorable iconic music of that era, Madonna’s presence in a growing nineteen nineties post modern environment where sex symbols begin to acquire religious status, commingle in this musically adept ménage. Class, gender, and sexuality blend discursively as aging hippies make multi-cultural pleas for acceptance, culminating in a significant nod to race with a moment of Yoko Ono celebration as the icing on the multi-faceted cake. All of the critical socially conscious parts are there to create the whole, and even though Gilbert has tailored the piece for audience members who may very well need tasteful theatre in order to placate them into the shady naturalism of queer identity, there are still all the trademark bad boy elements and the kitsch campiness he is famous for. Gilbert pushes the envelope perhaps as far as he can in a culturally savvy production replete with pickup trucks, white horses, endearing pig narratives, and the odd barn swallow (what do I know from barn swallows!) gracing the stage here and there in non equity unscripted roles. The natural beauty of Fourth Line continues to reside in the unexpected quality of nature that graces any given performance. And the overt queerness of this particular script makes the whole idea of nature sing sweet with contrast and coming home/coming out warm-heartedness.

Nathaniel Bacon as Luke brings a fresh and physically adept vitality to the role that blends youthfulness, naivete and a sincere love of nature that renders the meadows and the barnyards somewhat more camp than one might have expected. (see my own poetic rural drag narrative written when I was a stage manager and a walk-on farmer's wife in drag at Fourth Line Theatre several decades ago at

William Foley and Sherri McFarlane as Luke's parents shine as they battle the timeworn dilemma regarding how they can manage to love a gay son and stay together. McFarlane possesses a serene power as the stalwart subtly courageous matriarch while Foley delivers a skillful study in reactive disgrace and thwarted tender paternalism due to the iconic presence of hockey woven into the script.


But is any of this tasteful? Well, no, any interrogation of queer identity worth its salt leaves tasteful at the doorstep when it includes the violence too often inherent to growing up gay in a small town, or any metropolis, big or little, where so called loved ones become so conflicted by the emerging identity of their offspring that they revert to physical aggression. There is nothing tasteful about homophobia, on stage or off, and that’s the way it should be. I would have liked to have seen the mythic affects of tastefulness pushed a little further, but that’s just my own take on bad boy consciousness. Fourth Line, Kim Blackwell, Robert Winslow (Artistic Director), and Sky Gilbert must be commended for bringing together a seminal production in the growing history of queer theatrical enterprise. In the same audience where I overheard the “tasteful” remark I also heard someone express their surprise that this kind of social issue still needs to be put out there for audiences to 'learn' from.

Drive on out to the country and see this saintly little gem. It will make you feel good about feeling bad. It takes queer and freshens it up with a whiff of country air, and there’s even a bit of skin to behold, not too much though. One wouldn’t want to exceed the limits of tastefulness now, would one?

Spencer Harrison’s gorgeous Circus Tent, as part of his PhD thesis examining homophobia and queer identity, was set up for the media opening and queered the event even further as Harrison’s own experience as a country boy growing up gay continues to manifest itself within his practice as a visual artist. More on that in an upcoming blog post!

[1] In a panel discussion before the media opening of the play Gilbert described his early meetings with Robert Winslow (Artistic Director) and Kim Blackwell (Director & Associate Artistic Producer) that included ways in which queer subject matter might be represented within the company mandate  focusing upon community stories 

[2] the whole notion of spectatorship has been interrogated and called into question in a variety of texts that examine demographic and the assumptions made about audience appeal and accessibility - briefly, for the purposes of this ‘review’ and this production, it can be argued that the people any given script is tailored to, ‘despite’ their location within a rural area, frequently come from very sophisticated, affluent backgrounds, and even when they don’t, it can be a very subjective and diverse experience for ‘them’ to view ‘us’ whether they are watching a play in the country or the city 

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