Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Chaos in the lab

Nontraditional theatre explodes at Rhubarb

'BEAUTIFUL BUT UGLY.' Wild performance artist Taylor Mac from NYC represents the more international focus of Rhubarb this year.

When I first started covering Rhubarb four years ago it felt like a gay version of the other indie theatre festivals in town — a fruity Fringe or Sapphic Summerworks, if you will. But with Buddies in Bad Times’ evolution toward nontraditional, nontext-based performances, Rhubarb has kept pace with the changing times.

Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, the annual festival is doing anything but slowing down. What started as a local venue for broke writers and actors is now a thriving event that features national and international performers, each vying for a coveted spot on the juried roster. Festival programmer Erika Hennebury is excited about Rhubarb’s growing reputation as a truly alternative and unpredictable vehicle for creative expression.

“It’s like a big laboratory,” she says. “Rhubarb is the space where investigations and experimentations of creative expression can take place. I love that we’re presenting things that have a real range, steering away from solo artist representational work and focusing on music, dance and performance art. It’s exciting and risky.”

Hennebury believes this expansive approach offers an opportunity to showcase work being created by the queer artistic community, unfettered by traditional guidelines and expectations.

“It really speaks to the way queers work. Queers do sit down and write plays, but they also work in drag or cabaret. Sometimes a performance can be turning up in a costume at a party.”

This is particularly true if that costume has come out of Taylor Mac’s suitcase. The New York performance artist is one of the highlights of this year’s festival with his retrospective show The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac, premiering during week one of Rhubarb.

Armed with a ukulele, a stool and a valise full of costumes, Mac guides his audience through nearly a decade of shows performed in his own inimitable style. Standup comedy, dance and song are all part of this storyteller’s performances; his song “Morning” shares the inner monologue of an AM erection gone wrong, while “Safe” features the classic Mac epiphany: “I keep expecting the party to provide me with the fun, instead of me providing the fun to the party.”

“I call it my birth of the jukebox musicals,” says Mac. “It’s an expression of what has gone on politically and personally in the last eight years.”

Politics share equal stage with the performer’s intimate and revealing stories. Mac believes the two are inextricably entwined.

“So much of the piece has to do with homogenizing and creating sameness,” says Mac. “We don’t really champion or celebrate difference, and that is absolutely related to the political climate.

“I juxtapose political things over all of these personal things and slowly they melt together. In order to get to the political, you have to go through the personal.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Taylor Mac show without the sartorial splendour. Sequins, feathers, caked makeup and tattered items all find a home on the artist’s face and body.

“It’s a lot of things all squished together,” Mac says. “It’s masculine, feminine, graceful and total chaos. It’s really amateur but really professional. It’s beautiful but ugly.”

Taylor Mac’s 90-minute show runs Thu, Feb 5 to 8 in the Main Chamber.

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Genderbending and personal politics play a big role at this year’s Rhubarb. Actress and Second City alum Lex Vaughn dabbles in both with her week one offering Graham and Diane, but she lets a dummy do most of the talking.

Diane, the human half of the duo, is an administrative assistant in her mid-30s. Lonely and utterly lacking in social skills, Diane finds solace in a homemade dummy called Graham. The puppet’s misanthropic behaviour and filthy mouth may give the gal an outlet to vent, but when things go too far Diane is left in some pretty uncompromising positions.

Urged on by Graham and inspired by a corporate comedian’s performance at her workplace, Diane signs up to perform a ventriloquist act at a local open mic.

“It’s her first time onstage and it goes horribly wrong” says Vaughn. “Graham is really fucked up and foul-mouthed. And Diane is a repressed lesbian so Graham’s always trying to out her.”

Commiserating at home after the performance, the two end up going where few puppets have gone before. Diane’s horror at her friend’s behaviour clashes with Graham’s celebratory glee. Things get complicated.

The evening culminates in a sleep rape, a dummy pregnancy and the revelation that one of them is actually a hermaphrodite. “It’s all in the name of repression and codependency,” says Vaughn, laughing.

The performer says that Graham best represents her own naughty sense of humour, while Diane is based on one of her father’s ex-girlfriends.

“She was such a bitch and totally not fun,” says Vaughn. “She never laughed, and her idea of relaxing was reading a mystery novel while smoking menthol cigarettes. I despised her.”

Graham and Diane runs Feb 4 to 8 at 8pm in the cabaret.

Also dipping his toe into the genderbending pot will be frequent Xtra contributor and performance artist David Bateman. His piece What’s It Like? premieres Feb 4 at 9:10pm in the cabaret. The play examines the responses one can make to the most personal and invasive of questions. Bateman has a long relationship with the festival, something that Hennebury feels is essential when programming new seasons.

“It’s important to look back  as we move forward,” she says. “That’s the great thing about having people like Sky Gilbert and David Bateman involved this year. They’re part of a pretty rich history, and they’re still creating amazing work.”