Arts & Entertainment
7 min

Flamers, family & fanaticism

Summerworks' queer offerings

HATEFUL INSANITY. Carey Wass plays homophobic pastor Fred Phelps in Pastor Phelps Project. Credit: (Alistair Newton)

One of the exciting aspects of theatre festivals like the Fringe is the hit-and-miss aspect of the short plays that are chosen quite literally by a draw from the hat. The downside of course is the occasional excruciating hour spent watching a dramatic train wreck unfold before your eyes. For people wanting to avoid the capricious bitch god of indie theatre, the annual Summerworks Festival presents a juried program that features the best and brightest of the genre.

That Gay Guy

Queer representation at Summerworks is always healthy, and this year features several offerings that dare to ask really important questions, like, “Do you have to have a cock in your mouth at all times to prove that you’re really queer?”

Jonathan Wilson really wants to know. The actor/playwright has tasted success with his hit play-turned-film My Own Private Oshawa, a starring role in The Lion King musical, shows with Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre and Second City and a particularly compelling turn in commercials for Jane’s Frozen Chicken.

Yet the actor/playwright hasn’t been able to break into Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Wilson was just starting out when he approached the venerable queer theatre company, hoping to add his voice to their groundbreaking work.

“I knocked on the door at Buddies when [founder] Sky Gilbert was in charge, but I couldn’t get in there because Sky said I didn’t have a ‘queer enough’ energy,” says Wilson. “I remember being confused by that at the time — I am gay after all. I couldn’t figure out how to get invited to the party.”

When doors began to open for the budding artist at Tarragon Theatre, Wilson found himself at odds with Gilbert again. “Sky slammed me for going there to write. It was damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

His new play is all about this quest to find one’s own place within the community. That Gay Guy tells the story of a gay actor who has found fame and fortune playing a nellie sidekick on a primetime sitcom. David (played by Wilson) welcomes his success, but worries that he’s perpetuating an unflattering stereotype by flaming it up for the cameras. His best friend and costar (Amy Stewart) reminds him that it’s not his job to represent all of gay-kind, but the arrival of an idealistic young admirer (Marc Bendavid) further complicates matters.

“After doing My Own Private Oshawa I became known as a gay actor,” Wilson says. “If a gay guy part came up it was, ‘Get Jonathan Wilson in here.'”

Grateful for the means to make rent Wilson took the jobs while quietly enduring the occasional encouragement to camp it up more. “They’d ask me to be gayer,” he laughs. “I’d say, ‘Well, I am gay. How gay do I have to be?'”

“As an actor you try to keep it neutral when you’re starting out. But after My Own Private Oshawa, my sexuality sometimes became the only thing they knew about me, rather than the last thing they’d know about me.”

That Gay Guy marks a return to the stage for Wilson after years of working behind the scenes or in front of the camera. He’s more than a little nervous — not about the lines or the acting, but in regards to a theatrical line he is about to cross.

“I’ve never been asked to kiss a man onstage,” he laughs. “I’m absolutely terrified! But he’s beautiful so it’s okay.”

That Gay Guy, directed by Shari Hollett, opens Fri, Aug 8 at 10:30pm in the Factory Theatre Mainspace (125 Bathurst St).

The 83rd & Press

A woman lies on a bed in a dimly lit hotel room. She’s naked, save for a cover sheet. Beside the bed stands a man dressed only in underwear. It’s clear some sort of sexual congress has occurred. As the man addresses the audience we learn of the conflation of personal and universal events that has brought him here.

“He’s speaking about big ideas like physics and existence,” says Daniel MacIvor, of his latest play The 83rd. “Over the course of seven minutes we start to see him as a person instead of a character spouting ideas.”

One of Canada’s leading gay writer/performers, Daniel MacIvor has amassed an impressive body of work that includes Monster, Cul-de-sac, Here Lies Henry and the classic House (see page 39). This latest piece will be presented as part of Summerworks’ Performance Gallery in the Gladstone Hotel.

It’s an opportunity for MacIvor to further explore his fascination with personal identity in an intimate short play that will be looped over the evening.

“I believe that we are many people,” he says, “and that which we call the self is really a super-ficial name to call ego. I’m not a big believer in ‘be yourself’ and ‘find your truth.’ I don’t think it’s going to get us any closer to just being.”

Also appearing as part of the Gladstone Performance Gallery is renowned writer and performance artist Sarah Stanley, whose piece Press will draw on intensely personal material.

Using interviews conducted with her elderly parents Stanley has created the story of Johannes (Nick Carpenter) and Cordelia (Patricia Summersett). The aged couple live in complete isolation, left to sort out their relationship to each other and the rest of the world.

“My mom and dad are quite ill right now,” says Stanley, “so it’s very tricky stuff to be working on. Growing up I didn’t feel I could ask them these questions, but now, in their frailty, their interviews give me an indication of their strength.”

The 83rd and Press both open Aug 8 at the Gladstone (1214 Queen St W). Each five-minute performance will repeat several times between 7pm and 9pm. Also, don’t miss performances by Tara Beagan and DJ Holly Skinner in the same venue.

The Pastor Phelps Project

Notorious homophobe and Baptist reverend Fred Phelps would almost be amusing if he were merely a caricature, but his rabid antigay crusade is all too real. It would be easy enough to write a satire detailing the founder of Godhatesfags.com’s many sins, but playwright Alistair Newton decided to let the creepy minister speak for himself in The Pastor Phelps Project.

“All of the text in this piece is drawn from quotes on newscasts and off their website,” says Newton. “As hard is it is to believe, it’s all real.”

Newton became fascinated with the minister after learning some interesting dichotomies present in Phelps’ history.

“I originally found him interesting because he was so hysterically, ludicrously insane and hateful,” Newton says. “But before he started his hate church he was instrumental in getting the segregation legislation struck down in the States. Then a few years ago he decided the war in Iraq was wrong because [Phelps claims] he’s a peace-loving man, so they decided to picket soldiers’ funerals.”

Picketing funerals has long been a favourite pastime of the maniacal minister and his followers. Protests at the funeral of murdered gay teen Matthew Shepard and victims of AIDS are among the group’s more despicable acts, but rightwing nutjobs like Jerry Falwell and George Bush and co were more than happy to look the other way until patriotism got thrown into the mix.

Newton sees this as complicit support from church and government for their more extreme supporters.

“Congress passed a law that said it was illegal to picket a soldier’s funeral called the Respect for Fallen Heroes Act, but you can still picket AIDS funerals,” he says. “Phelps speaks the subtext of the Christian right.

“He says all the things they’d like to say, but can’t because they know they’d become clowns like him. It’s just that Bush’s demagogy is slick and Phelps’ is raw.”

To keep the play from verging into depressing all-too-realism Newton is staging it in tribute to 1920s German Expressionism: actors perform in white masks with exaggerated features, while engaging in some risqué burlesque choreography by La Coquettes’ Kaitlyn Regehr.

Playing family matriarch Shirley Phelps has left actor/playwright/singer Evalyn Parry with some conflicted feelings, but she still finds the role an interesting exercise.

“On one hand the Phelps family loves publicity, which maybe I don’t feel so good about,” says Parry. “But it’s worth drawing attention to the lunacy of their platforms.”

Daniel Rutzen is providing musical direction for the piece, and brings his own personal history into play as both an American-born Christian and a gay man.

“I was raised Lutheran and I’ve always gone to church,” Rutzen says. “The music we’re using has been appropriated from hymns and American patriotic tunes I’ve heard my whole life. I’ve had to separate my spirituality from my work.

“What frightens me is the hypocrisy of the United States. These people have been spewing antigay hate message for years and nobody said a thing until they started picketing soldiers.”

The Pastor Phelps Project opens Aug 7 at 8pm at the Cameron House (408 Queen St W).

Crush

Some people find daytime talk shows deadly dull. Others just find them deadly. Crush is based loosely on an episode of the Jenny Jones talk show that led to a gay man’s murder after he revealed his love to an unsuspecting neighbour.

Ronnie and Sandra are best friends living in a rural Ontario trailer park. Sandra (Siobhan Power) spends her days watching TV and dreaming of fame as a talk show host, while Ronnie (Ryan Kelly) has a reputation for bitchy alcohol-fuelled tirades. Their lives take an unsuspected turn when butchy Martin (Julian DeZotti) struts into their lives and their hearts, and a problematic love triangle veers toward tragedy.

Gay playwright and actor Hume Baugh wrote the piece to explore both sides in the horrific talk show episode that inspired Crush.

“When I first heard the Jenny Jones story I was not out to myself so I really identified with the straight guy who was ambushed,” says Baugh. “It was really horrible what talk shows do to people. There was something cruel and homophobic about it, but also unfair to the straight guy who thought the crush was going to be a woman.”

Crush, directed by Mark Cassidy, opens Aug 8 at 6pm in Theatre Passe Muraille’s Backspace (16 Ryerson Ave).

The Kente Cloth

Ghana is an African country beloved by its citizens for its strong sense of family and loving community. Unless you happen to suck cock.

Ghanaian immigrant Tawiah M’carthy knows only too well the devastation of homophobia in his home country, and has written about it in his new play The Kente Cloth.

William (played by M’carthy) is a well-educated young man living in Ghana. His father is fiercely proud of his son’s achievements and presents William with an intricately woven kente cloth in recognition of the boy’s mastery over their country’s traditional adowa dance.

His son is torn between honour at receiving the gift and shame at the secret of his homosexuality. What would happen if his father knew that he’s fallen in love with not only a boy but a white boy?

“William’s never worn the cloth yet,” says M’carthy. “He’s always felt he could never live up to the image of the man his father had for him. Now he’s in love and he wants to get married, but to move forward he needs to make peace with where he’s from.”

The Kente Cloth is directed by Cole J Alvis (Nellie Boy) and opens Aug 7 at 10:30pm in the Theatre Centre (1087 Queen St W).