A new play by Sarah Miller-Garvin debuting in the Fringe Festival, Fort Isabel, is one of those rare shows about queer people you don’t often get to see. It’s not a coming-out story (not exactly), it’s not moralizing, though there’s a subtle moral component about right and wrong, and it’s not a romance, though it’s about love. The reason I enjoyed it so much, however, was because the love in the show is at once wonderful and terrible.
The premise is that two nine-year-old friends, Jen and Clinton (portrayed by Jennifer Krukowski and Victor Pokinko), find a dead body in the woods near their secret fort. The body is physically male but dressed in women’s clothing. The children don’t understand and leave it, not telling anyone because they’re afraid their fort will be discovered. As adults, they must come to terms with the choices they’ve made, the secrets they’ve kept and the mistakes their parents have made. Most of all, they have to come to terms with themselves.
Though the subject matter is dark, Fort Isabel swings between the darkness and moments of hilarity, thanks to expert handling of key scenes by emerging theatre creator Evan Vipond and the talents of the play’s stars. Krukowski commands the stage from start to finish with an emotional gravity; Pokinko characterizes Clinton at nine and then again in his late teens with a physical expressiveness that is a joy to watch.
The production team should be commended, as well. Anna Standish’s set is simple and colourful, like something out of a child’s dream. One slightly distracting element was an occasional pulsing light, a simple enough technical issue that could be easily fixed. The final scene, as well, could use the slightest of dramaturgical tightening so each new revelation is as sharp as the last.
On the whole, Fort Isabel is a fantastic debut co-production between two emerging theatre companies and a wonderful, complex, queer show.
Anyone, though especially queer and trans audience members, will be able to relate to the young characters in front of them. One scene stands out, where Jen and Clinton are talking about how they both believe they’re crazy, and they describe their fears and neuroses. Powerful stuff. The play’s dark realism explores the ways we’re all fucked up by how we grew up. The entire time I kept thinking of a quote from that master of “childhood” storytelling, Maurice Sendak: “People say, ‘Oh, Mr Sendak, I wish I were in touch with my childhood self, like you!’ As if it were all quaint and succulent, like Peter Pan. Childhood is cannibals and psychotics vomiting in your mouth!”
Something to keep in mind when you’re venturing out to that dark place where Fort Isabel is.