Acclaimed Canadian playwright Michael Healey’s new script, Courageous, currently running at the Tarragon Theatre, has been heralded as a brave and complex meditation on fairness, human rights and same-sex union. Well into this satiric comic drama, one of the characters suggests that all is chaos out there in the real world, and by this point during a two-hour marathon of absolute social and political mayhem, one cannot help but agree. Healey may very well be trying to get at the immense difficulties one encounters when religion and alternate sexuality merge, and his enormous talent for razor sharp, biting comedy is very entertaining. However, at the end of the day and the end of the play, one is left with the infuriating feeling that we have been taken on an out-of-control roller coaster ride that has thrown us, with the greatest of dis-ease, out of the closet and into the belfry. Harshly non-secular bells were ringing in my ears by the end of the play, as I narrowly resisted the urge to start talking back to the annoying narration that dominates the second half of this very chaotic, yet cleverly written, piece of theatre.
Structurally, “Courageous” appears to be two very loosely connected one-acts that are not clearly defined as such, leaving an eager queer spectator to her or his own device when the gay male narrative is abandoned at the beginning of the second act. One returns from the intermission only to discover that half the actors who have been playing self-loathing homos have been literally relegated to the role of stage hand, while the other half are given a fate far worse — they become straight! Nothing against heterosexuality, but it is a sharp blow to the queer dramaturgical groin when one is confronted with a gay play that suddenly and inexplicably becomes a straight political comic-drama with formerly faintly fey characters literally pushing couches on and off stage without a word to say. Clearly, Healey is trying to make subtle political/global analogies to the silencing of same-sex sentiments and the plight of refugees. The power of these analogies is not lost on an intrigued and delighted audience. Nevertheless, given the dearth of queer theatre — presently and historically — that addresses serious same-sex issues, Courageous seems, at times, a touch cowardly.
By giving the lone non-white character two divergent roles as immigrants from opposing class backgrounds, Healey constructs an impressive awareness of the way in which some immigrants find themselves immersed within a “polite” Canadian milieu of convoluted social programs. But this is not the whole picture, and when the straight white Canadian youngsters in the play lightly complain about the “privilege” that some new Canadians enjoy, one wonders whether the playwright has ever visited a housing office in downtown Toronto and witnessed the insufferable task of actually trying to acquire an affordable abode. Granted, Healey cannot be expected to paint the entire social landscape, and yet, given his penchant for a very broad palette in Courageous, his ambitious script frequently falls prey to trivializing comic dogma purporting to be an articulate meditation upon complex social equations.
The cast, under Richard Rose’s efficiently, fast-paced direction, is remarkable as they skip lightly through this unsettling comedy, and the two hours fly by as they raise many important questions. Unfortunately, the second act, much like the first, tries too hard to answer the very hard questions posed throughout, lapsing into monologues by a cute young straight boy who tends to grossly over-simplify the whole mess. And what in the hell happened to the two fags from the first act? Healey’s meta-theatrical conventions whereby actors become stagehands becoming actors becoming stagehands seems a trite and inappropriate ploy in desperate need of a quick rewrite in order to fully integrate form and function in a play that is, literally and figuratively, all over the map. Actors playing characters from the Sudan, Somalia and Toronto bravely and successfully tackle a text and inhabit a play that needs a little less quixotic quippage and a lot more queer courage.