For today’s queer Torontonian, the concepts of open relationships, polyamory and a host of other non-monogamist set-ups are at least familiar, if perhaps not personally viable. However, listening to the overwhelming rhetoric on either side of the gay marriage debate, or even a pop radio show, is a clear reminder that we live in a largely monogamist society.
“Every romance movie ever is about your one true love and all that crap. You see it from before you can even speak,” says Carly Chamberlain, director of a dramatic double bill that presents two drastically different approaches to non-monogamy. “We’re setting ourselves up for, if not failure, at least disappointment.”
In some senses, Neoteny Theatre’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s Overruled and Neil LaBute’s Romance can be seen as a counterweight to a culture that overwhelmingly expects committed exclusivity.
The Shaw play, a little-known comedy from 1912, tells the tale of two couples who split up to vacation separately and end up falling for each other’s spouses. Yet instead of engaging in a typical jealousy drama, the four lovers take a rationalist approach to the situation despite their deeply embedded sense of social protocol.
Neoteny’s production gives life to the play’s comedic timing and slapstick — with a particularly hilarious performance by Caitlin Stewart. But Shaw also makes a bold statement for his epoch.
“Shaw felt like everyone would be a lot happier if people at the time, and it still applies now, spent less time projecting a certain morality they felt they had to live up to and instead were just honest,” Chamberlain says.
This attitude is certainly held by the women in the play. While their husbands obsess over what’s “proper,” the wives don’t seem to see what the big deal is — and at some moments seem more interested in each other than either of their outwardly conflicted partners.
Yet part of the pleasure for the men, it seems, is indeed the sense of transgression against what they name to be right. “Passion is not real passion without guilt,” one of the husbands declares halfway through the piece.
The second piece, Romance, takes a decidedly darker approach to the fetishization of guilt. The short work from 2010 reveals that, almost 100 years later, betrayal and cruelty still dog supposedly committed romantic endeavours. What’s more, the characters even seem to prefer the violence of deception to the possibility of sincere communication.
An interesting experiment, the two-character drama is written in such a way that each character could be played by any gender. In his notes for the piece, LaBute says the intention of Romance was “to explore the limits of gender and power onstage.”
To this end, Neoteny will be mounting four versions of the play, two of which feature straight couples and two of which involve same-sex pairings. To encourage audiences to experience the differences, each ticket comes with a promotional code offering a 50-percent discount to come back.
“The dynamic of the two women together has a much different feel than all of the other three,” observes Chamberlain, who says she took a hands-off directorial approach with the players.
While changing actors will always modify the effect of a role, the juxtaposition of straight and gay couples in this production certainly raises the question: how might heterosexual and queer folks interact differently with various models of commitment? The idea that queer people, already excluded from “traditional” relationships, are more likely to engage in open relationships is convincing for some. Indeed, straight friends who are reluctant to accept the advice of their non-monogamist friends are quick to quip, “But you can get away with that — you’re gay.”
However, Overruled and Romance together invite audiences to consider that, today or a century ago, straight or gay, most of us are still trying to figure out this whole “relationship” thing.
Neoteny Theatre Presents: Overruled/Romance
Runs until Sat, April 6
Red Sandcastle Theatre
922 Queen St E