Arts & Entertainment
5 min

Get Off the Cross, Mary

Gay puppets reenact The Flaming Passion of the Christ

PUPPETS SAY IT BEST: 'If you have two gay puppets sitting in a coffee shop picking people apart, it doesn't seem as mean or as biting,' says Berend McKenzie (right). Credit: Xtra files

This year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival certainly has some great shows for queer theatergoers eager to catch some cutting-edge performances but none have the sheer oddball promise of Berend McKenzie’s Get Off the Cross, Mary, the story of a once-famous gay puppet who tries to make his big comeback by producing and starring in a queer disco remake of The Passion of the Christ.

The show is irreverent, filthy, and absolutely hilarious, and has already caused waves at last year’s Edmonton Fringe and played to a sold-out run at Calgary’s International Festival of Animated Objects earlier this year. You’ll want to get your tickets early for this one.

McKenzie, who has played at more than 15 Fringe festivals and won the audience pick award for best actress for a role he played in drag at last year’s Vancouver Fringe, says he wrote the show as a response to homophobia in the media and popular culture.

“This was sort of my way of saying fuck you and showing them that we have a voice ourselves,” he says.

Loading the show with the story of The Passion came about completely organically, McKenzie says.

“When I started making the show, the puppets were remaking a movie and I didn’t know what movie they were making. My friend Darren Hagan and I were brainstorming, and he said you should make The Passion of the Christ,” he says. “It happened that last summer, right when we were about to go on stage, Mel Gibson had his big meltdown. I couldn’t have found a bigger lightning rod for a gay puppet to decide to remake.”

While the show certainly has fun with Christian doctrine and is sure to ruffle a few feathers in the conservative crowd, the butt of most of McKenzie’s jokes is clear.

“If I’m taking swipes at anybody it’s mainly Mel Gibson. I’m not taking swipes at religion,” he says.

Still, the puppets are making a film called The Flaming Passion of the Christ. Religion doesn’t remain completely unscathed.

“It’s the one thing that the Christian right would not accept is that Jesus would not be gay,” McKenzie says, adding, “He didn’t surround himself with a whole bunch of hot women, he had one prostitute and a whole bunch of hairy, stinky men. If they say Jesus isn’t gay, I’m going to make him gay.”

For McKenzie, doing the show with puppets actually freed him to go further over the top and challenge ideas than he would have had the show been done entirely with live actors.

“When the puppets [say mean things] it’s less biting and less mean-spirited, even though the puppets swear a lot and say a lot of racy things,” he says. “I think I chose puppets because puppets tend to be able to say things that humans can’t say. If you have two gay puppets sitting in a coffee shop picking people apart, it doesn’t seem as mean or as biting.”

The show is also designed to incorporate the actors who wear the puppets as characters in the play, which highlights the differences in how the puppets and humans interact with each other. While the puppets are mean, self-centred, and incredibly vain, they’re also the most honest characters in the play.

“Nothing in the show is hidden. Everything happens in front of the audience. The only part when the actors are not seen is when they shoot the movie. The puppets wear the humans and not the other way around.”

McKenzie has already stared raising eyebrows in Vancouver with the script for Get off the Cross, Mary as a member of the West End Writers’ Circle. As he was preparing the script, he would read parts of it at their meetings and the play sparked controversy from some of the members, he says.

“Every time I read this, it caused a discussion on free speech. It was around the time of the prophet Mohammed cartoons, and people said ‘What if they picket your show?’ I said, ‘It’s a puppet show!’ I like stuff that gets people thinking,” he says. “It’s very academic and they don’t see many plays, and gay plays, and puppet things.”

While Get off the Cross, Mary continues its successful run, McKenzie is already hard at work on his next piece, so far called Nigger Fag: Accidental Activist.

“I should tell you I’m black and I’m gay,” McKenzie laughs. “It’s the hatred behind the word that’s the catalyst for so many things. Some people say it’s a great title, and some say ooh, you shouldn’t go there.”

McKenzie hopes that Vancouver’s gay community will latch onto the play as Alberta’s already has.

“Here in Vancouver, the gay community is just starving for entertainment. We don’t have a gay theatre like Buddies,” he says. “I’m hoping that there’s a hunger out there for gay theatre and it’ll pay off.”

More queer picks at the Fringe

Loungezilla

A riotous send-up of egotistical cabaret acts, Loungezilla has played to rave reviews and sold-out audiences across the Fringe circuit.

Starring Fiely A Matias as the titular gay male diva, Loungezilla is a hilarious collection of original songs about fetishes, threesomes, stalking, and fag hags, and features an incredible x-rated 3D final number that has to be seen to be believed (all I’ll say is that it’s a tribute to “giant-themed” 50s sci-fi movies).

The show is heavily audience interactive and Matias’ deceptively giving performance will make even the most reluctant audience members into scene-stealers. A must-see.

Fat Camp

Gay San Francisco performer James Judd returns to Vancouver with this true story about being tricked by his partner and parents into attending a lockdown fat camp in Florida. Hilarity allegedly ensues as Judd’s four Mormon aunts from Utah also show up.

The show promises politics, religion, two gay-related murders, and good times.

Judd’s played the Fringe circuit before and says his shows almost always sell out, but the gays haven’t yet latched onto him (mentioning the word gay in the Fringe program might have helped). Worth a look.

The Timekeepers

An Israeli drama about a young German homosexual and an elderly Jewish man who are thrown into the Sachsenhausen concentration camp during World War II. The two have little in common at first, but find that humour brings them together. The Timekeepers has played to strong reviews internationally and was held over at the Edmonton Fringe. Another must.

Other shows

The Fringe is also swimming in sex-themed and queer-positive plays that are also worth a look, especially if you pick up a festival multi-pass —five shows for $45 or 10 for $80.

So Kiss Me Already, Herschel Gertz is Fringe favourite Amy Salloway’s latest, about an awkward teen marooned in a Jewish Camp. Not queer, but her wonderful previous shows have seen her in lesbian orgies.

Emily Pearlman’s Free Range queers up sexual desire in a story about a woman’s sexual awakening as she falls in love with her tapeworm, Warren.

The Churchill Protocol, a comedy about nefarious goings-on in the Canadian army, is a hell of a show, and gay actor Kris Joseph makes more than a few hints at his insane colonel’s sexuality.

Three shows are actually lectures about gender, sex, and the sex business: TJ Dawe’s Maxim and Cosmo and Penny Ashton’s Hot Pink Bits are entertaining enough, but neither is really groundbreaking. Miss April Day’s School for Burgeoning Young Strippers is a bit more challenging.