two places, two plays

Wow. Time flies when you’re having fun! That being said, I’m way overdue for a couple of theatre reviews here.

The most time-sensitive of them, in terms of making my comp ticket a worthwhile investment on the part of its kind providers, is my review of 2boys.tv‘s new performance piece Phobophilia, which recently made its debut at Montreal’s fabulous and super-queer-friendly Studio 303. The play is described as a “hybrid performance work, a contemporary chronicle that uses the life and art of Jean Cocteau as its palate and inspiration.”

Cocteau is the originator of one of my all-time favourite quotes – “A little too much is just enough for me” – and while I’m by no means a true connoisseur, I have a strong appreciation for his work. In 2004 the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts held an exhibit of his art in various media (including his writing – he did conceive of himself primarily as a poet, after all), along with that of others’ work inspired by him, and it was definitely a standout. Combine that aesthetic with the concept of phobophilia – the eroticization of terror – and I was hooked.

2boys.tv’s latest definitely has the rich Parisian “classical avant-garde” feel of Cocteau’s work, and their layered multimedia performance concept (also by its very nature reminiscent of Cocteau’s versatility) was so intriguing that it almost didn’t matter that the connection between Cocteau and fear-fetish felt a bit tenuous.

The play started off with a very mysterious ritual in which each audience member was asked to remove their shoes, put on a blindfold, and be rather ceremoniously guided into the small, darkened performance venue. The process definitely set the stage for the up-close and intimate relationship the performers cultivated with the audience. The seats were arranged around a diminutive central performance space, in which a man stood on a black box, perched shakily on his toes, a hood over his head, whimpering in… well, fear and arousal. A voice from the box commanded him to do several things, such as remove his shoes, and he quickly and nervously complied; the voice then started shooting questions at him, which he couldn’t seem to find it in himself to answer. It had the feel of a mild but emotionally compelling interrogation scene.

The play concluded with a return to that same scene, with the man (now barefoot) standing tiptoe and trembling again. I could have watched him there for quite some time, honestly… the fact of not knowing what it was that had him so scared, why he was holding himself in this precarious position, and what exactly was turning him on really worked for me, and got my mind going into all sorts of intriguing places about anonymity and power and fear and arousal.

And that’s kind where the fear/eroticism thing began and ended.

The rest of the piece was also very intriguing, but in a completely different way. The 2boys.tv duo (Montrealers Stephen Lawson and Aaron Pollard) are geniuses when it comes to the creative use of projection techniques. Their magic box opened to successively reveal one miniature set after another, each constructed with openings and holes and jutting-out bits and moving pieces, such that the 2boys’ equally ingenious tiny projected images could move around and through in a gloriously choreographed and fully interactive dance between image and surface, human and technology. Every time the set changed, it was like they were opening a fresh gift and offering it to the audience, and every last concept was engaging and original.

One particularly brilliant scene involved the performer engaging in a spoken dialogue with a miniature projection of himself; another had tiny people running around on the set, appearing and disappearing through doors and windows that the live performer opened to allow them to pass. Burlesque-inspired musical performances, an ostrich-feathered and corseted drag character, the occasional incorporation of wartime gunfire and bombing soundtracks to add a sobering note to the vaudevillean feel of the thing… It was like a buffet table of delicious creative nibbles, each more delightful than the last.

Perhaps it would take a more experienced art critic than I to point out the connections between all this and the concept of arousal from terror; I didn’t quite see the relationship. But in truth it didn’t make a whit of difference. Whether you get their deeper meanings or simply enjoy the sheer volume of high-calibre creativity they bring to their work, 2boys.tv are well worth a night at the theatre.

***

A few days before seeing Phobophilia in Montreal, I caught Red Dress Productions’ new play Never Man’s Land in Toronto. In a sentence, I’d describe it as a transgender, transgenerational and trans-temporal meditation on the story of Peter Pan and the concept of time. Some reviews have said it’s too long, but though it is fairly lengthy for a one-act play, I found the whole thing quite engaging.

The three actors leap from role to role in ways that are at times quite clear and at others wonderfully indistinct, with a minimalist set (a sheet, a table and some ropes) that doubles as a projection screen at various points in the narrative.

Our hero, Peter, starts out as a contemporary female-bodied person (with the birth name Wendy) who declares that s/he is going to finally decide once and for all whether s/he is a woman or a man. “Our” Peter’s journey is juxtaposed with that of Peter Pan choosing repeatedly, in the face of advancing time and a shrinking island, not to grow up. Wendy faces considerable dilemmas as Wendy/Peter’s mother (an academic expert on Peter Pan) and would-be lover who tries, gently but with more and more urgency, to convince him that he can’t avoid adulthood forever. Peter’s father / Wendy’s psychoanalyst / Captain Hook goes from cold gender-enforcing analysis to the growling desperation of a pirate constantly fretting, in bouts of increasingly frenzied anger and fear, about the crocodile who ate his hand and will surely be back for the rest of him; the beast swallowed a clock that now warns Hook of the croc’s approach, but that clock will surely wind down one day, and then…

That sense of both meditative poetry and building urgency plays out in each spiral of the story, underpinning the entire work in a way that manages to be both subtle and very effective. It’s intriguing to see this classic story and fairly classic themes juxtaposed with the much more contemporary theme of gender questioning and identity transition, with secondary themes of family alienation and chosen community.

On the technical front, the set is well-designed and versatile, the projections and music add depth to the narrative, and the acting is solid – never brilliant but always convincing. But the true strength of this play lies in Tristan R. Whiston’s writing. This is most strikingly evident in the concluding monologue that Peter gives about time. He strings just about every colloquial saying about time that the English language has to offer – “running out of time,” “time to kill,” “just in time,” “take your time,” and so forth – into a single rapid-fire list that somehow, in all its simplicity, manages to convey the emotional swell of a symphonic finale, with urgency and nostalgia and humour swirled together in a masterful whirlwind of words. Truly impressive.

***

And those are my queer theatre reviews for the month. Here’s hoping there will be more opportunities soon!


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