Arts & Entertainment
7 min

Squirrel pies, testicles, lies & gay blades

It must be the Fringe fest

BOUNCING HEALTH. Adam Goldhamer and Rob Salerno in Balls.

Tired of watching insipid reality TV shows filled with klutzy aspiring dancers and karaoke- mangling teenagers? Then catch these shows from and about members of the queer community, in part two of our annual Fringe Toronto theatre festival coverage.

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A Girl Named Ralph

It’s hard growing up as a tomboy in any family, especially when your days are spent labouring in the family bakery for eccentric parents. Playwright and standup comedian Raffaella Diana recalls less-than-halcyon days in her comedy A Girl Named Ralph.

Ten-year-old Raffaella (played by Monica Nunez) knows only too well that her Italian-born folks are different from most kids’ in their Montreal neighbourhood. For starters, they refuse to learn either of the country’s official languages, forcing their daughter to translate for French and English customers.

Her sole friend is a little boy named Frank (Robert Bellisimo) who’s too naive to realize that Raffaella’s father (David Occhipinti) only lets him hang around to exploit free child labour.

There’s also Papa’s unorthodox method of putting food on the table. He sets traps out in the backyard for any critter foolish enough to wander by, and has been known to serve delicacies like grilled squirrel to unsuspecting dinner guests.

“It’s pretty much biographical,” says Diana, laughing. “All of these things actually happened. The health inspector showed up and they ended up eating it together. My friend and I watched in horror. We don’t eat any meat my dad makes.”

There were, however, some bonuses in serving as her mom and dad’s interpreter. Diana fondly remembers transforming a self-esteem destroying progress report from her teacher into a glowing homage in Italian.

She decided to string these childhood stories together after getting laughs with them for years in her standup routine. as one might suspect, her chosen profession has made little impression on her now-elderly parents.

“I told them about the show but they don’t get it,” says Diana. “It’s not considered work if it’s not hard manual labour.”

A Girl Named Ralph is directed by Tanisha Taitt and opens Thu, Jul 3 at 9:15pm in the Robert Gill Theatre (214 College St, third floor).

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Putz

Is there an opposite-gender equivalent of a fag hag? Andrew Bailey examines life as a lesbian’s best, straight male friend in his new play Putz.

It’s a mostly true recollection of Bailey’s close friendship with a woman he calls Katrina. The two compadres wile away date nights together, lamenting life in their respective closets: Katrina as a lesbian, and Bailey as a man living with mental illness.

“My psychiatrist ordered me to start dating my best friend,” says Bailey, who hadn’t yet clued into Katrina’s orientation. “It was part of cognitive behavioural therapy… if there’s something you’re afraid of doing, then you face it and do that thing.”

Unfortunately, Katrina’s thing was pretty much focused on other chicks’ boobies. But the two bonded over their respective secrets.

“I grew up with obsessive compulsive disorder with intrusive thoughts,” says Bailey. “So, for example, if you read a newspaper article about rape, a normal person would say, ‘Oh, how awful,’ but I would feel guilty or shamed by it, as though I was the sexual deviant.”

Confiding in a friend who also felt she was hiding a shameful secret made things a little easier for the reclusive guy.

“We thought if anyone knew about us, they wouldn’t talk to us,” says Bailey. “There was a part of me that really liked that first summer where only I knew about her, though. But I knew that, as she moved on,I would be less important to her.”

As Katrina made her way out of the closet, Bailey lived vicariously through his friend’s burgeoning sex life. “I was sort of like the gay best friend in reverse,” he says.

Eventually, as Katrina moved further away into out-and-proud life, Bailey began his own brave journey through mental illness. With the help of a therapist, he began exploring his own sexuality, finally reaching a point where he could write about the process with a degree of closure. Looking back, he’s glad he could be of support to his friend during such a tumultuous period in her life, but also cops to some added fringe benefits.

“Other friends reacted to her being gay by getting her naked women magazines,” Bailey confesses. “She ended up giving the Playboys to me. I scored a lot of free porn.”

Putz is directed by Jacob Richmond and opens Jul 3 at 10pm in Tarragon Theatre’s Extra Space (30 Bridgman Ave).

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Balls

Men are generally pretty obsessed with the two globes dangling between their legs. We caress them, scratch them and even dress them up in little party hats (maybe that’s just me). But when it comes to injury or illness regarding our favourite boys, guys generally cross their legs and clam up.

Rob Salerno knows how uncomfortable it can be to talk about something like testicular cancer. Several years ago the writer (and frequent Xtra contributor) lost a close friend to the disease and he’s written about the experience in the play Balls (which toured Fringe fests outside Toronto last summer).

“I know it’s a little off-putting,” Salerno admits, “but it’s important because sexual health is something that a lot of men are uncomfortable talking about and we really need to.”

The idea for Balls came while Salerno and a companion spied a poster advertising Eve Ensler’s ground-breaking Vagina Monologues. “The guy I was with said, ‘Why don’t you write a penis monologue, or a testicle monologue?’ I told him that if it was about testicles it would have to be a dialogue.”

What was originally intended as a joking response gave birth to a two-man play based on a short story Salerno had written after his friend died of testicular cancer.

Paul and Bastian (Salerno and Adam Goldhamer) are two friends dealing with Paul’s recent cancer diagnosis. They’ve been close since childhood, despite some pretty heavy blows to their relationship.

“Bastian stole Paul’s girlfriend in high school,” says Salerno, “and Paul’s still a virgin. We do talk about the queer aspects, like is that why Paul hasn’t had any sexual experience? I think his sexual development has been put on hold because of cancer.”

Directed by Salerno and Laurel Green, Balls opens Jul 3 at 10:30pm in Factory Theatre’s Mainspace (125 Bathurst St).

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Community Centre

Five women with nothing in common wait in line for a place in a popular aerobics class. They chat to pass the time, inadvertently learning intimacies untold to the best of friends or the closest of spouses.

Emerging playwright Renna Reddie imagines a most unusual meeting of the minds as these women talk about money, sex, parenting and Sapphic curiosity in her premiere production, Community Centre.

Divorcee (played by Natalie Kulesza) has recently ended her pampered marriage and is having a little trouble acclimating to the dramatically scaled-down life of a single mom. Housewife (Jennifer McEwan) can sympathize but she has her own problems as she fears she is being haunted by her new husband’s dead mother.

Elsewhere in line Green Jacket (Elaine Steele) is finding herself strangely drawn to the charismatic Mature Woman (Teresa Wilson) who reveals that her first post-widowhood romance was with a woman. Self-obsessed Yuppie (Sasha Singer-Wilson) is in a world of her own and just wants to maintain the social norm.

“I based the play on something that happened to me at Armour Heights Community Centre,” says Reddie. “There were at least 200 people in line. My iPod battery died on me and I had nothing to listen to as I was standing behind these women.”

Reading between the carefully constructed lines of overheard conversation, Reddie construed a more candid take on what the women were actually saying to each other.

“They were relating a very censored version of themselves,” she says. “Their children were doing fine, the job was going well and they were seeing someone and it’s going great. And all the while I’m thinking ‘Lies! All Lies!’ This play is what I wanted to hear. This is what I think they were really saying to each other.”

Directed by Taylor Graham, Community Centre also stars Bridget Tobin and opens Jul 3 at 8:45pm in the Royal St George (120 Howland Ave).

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Hockey: The Musical

Usually the worlds of gay life and hockey only intersect in hastily filmed 1990s porn videos but New York teacher and playwright Rick Wilson brings those worlds together in Hockey: The Musical. Wilson was inspired to create the piece with former student Justin DeMarco following a class presentation that found the gay teacher learning a few new things about stick handling.

“Justin brought 15 hockey sticks to class, gave one to everyone and started teaching them the history, language and culture of hockey,” says Wilson.

Surprised to enjoy a sport he had hitherto ignored, Wilson dreamed up the idea to integrate his musical acumen with DeMarco’s blossoming talent as a writer.

Together they created the story of Pavel Riccardino (played by Wilson’s real-life boyfriend Christopher Leidenfrost), a closeted player who is outed just as his star is beginning to rise. His teammates on the fictional Minnesota Turtles hockey team are less than thrilled at the revelation, but rally around Pavel as he faces the media onslaught and his shocked girlfriend.

Toronto actor Michael Gill, who plays Pavel’s secret boyfriend Kevin, knows only too well the stigma of being gay in our hyper-masculinized national sport.

“I didn’t come out until I was finished with playing hockey,” says Gill. “I honestly couldn’t imagine what it might have been like to come out then.”

Gill sees the social climate changing, however, and feels optimistic that sporty coming-out tales will soon become fact rather than fiction. “With the world where it is right now, things are actually changing. It’s naive to think it’s not out there, and I think this is a really good message.”

It may seem a little incongruous that a hunky, straight high school student (now studying journalism at Boston’s Emerson College) is the other half of the writing team, but DeMarco wasn’t at all fazed by the play’s subject matter or his former teacher’s orientation.

“It was a good experience for me to know that just because someone’s gay, doesn’t mean they’re going to be attracted to you,” says DeMarco. “My best friend’s gay. It might be something completely different from what you saw when you were growing up, but when you boil it down, there is no real difference between any of us.”

Hockey: The Musical continues its run at Helen Gardiner Phelan (79a St George St) till Sun, Jul 13 at 7pm.