Beefy men, full body contact, flashy duds and synthetic aggression – you have to wonder what’s up with a pro sport that’s equal parts theatre and athleticism. And even if you’re not gay, you have to wonder what the thinly veiled sexuality of pro wrestling can possibly mean.
A combo of gay and straight Edmonton theatre artists have come up with answers, suitably dramatized and satirized – but hardly sanitized. Piledriver! posts a prominent caveat on all publicity – “Warning: Fake sex and violence! Real swearing!”
That ought to hint at the levels of kidding in store. Writers Darrin Hagen and Wes Borg (gay and straight, respectively) have undertaken to de-mystify some of wrestling’s shenanigans by stressing the fact that the men engaged in macho hostility and homophobia are often gay themselves.
Paradoxically, Hagen (the ex-drag queen of the group Guys In Disguise) sounds butcher than Borg (of Three Dead Trolls In A Baggie), who comes across as cuddly and sensitive. But both trade quips and laugh raucously.
Hagen got the idea for Piledriver when he ran into Borg at a screening of The Full Monty, the Brit comedy where unemployed men strip to restore their male self-esteem. “It was full of all these guy issues I’d never seen addressed before,” says Hagen. “We were all kind’a pumped up on the testosterone energy of that. I said, ‘Hey dude. I got this friend who used to be a gay wrestler. We should write a play about it.'”
“I pounced,” says Borg. “Dollar signs lit up in my eyeballs.”
Hagen’s boyfriend, Kevin Hendricks, had been the caregiver for his friend Harvey Jones. After Jones’s death from AIDS, Hendricks inherited all his memorabilia. Only then did he discover the full extent of Jones’s wrestling career, aka Killer Karl Kramer, a star of Stampede Wrestling – which toured Alberta’s back roads and Bible Belt and was broadcast on TV on Saturday afternoons.
Jones’s archives were evidence of a very homo lifestyle. “The wrestling programs looked like the Village People,” Hagen says.
Piledriver earned good notices in Edmonton and Winnipeg (“The World Wrestling Federation meets The Rocky Horror Picture Show;” “This one ain’t for church-goin’ grannies”) as well as awards. The current remount at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre of the 1999 show will move back to Edmonton after its Toronto run.
The play stars both writers, plus Jeff Page and April Bannigan. The fetching poster boy with the nipple rings and chest hair is actor Joe Bird. “A Dead Troll, actually,” says Borg. “All the straight guys play fags, and the drag queen [Hagen] plays the straight homophobe.”
Hagen checked out a lot of cheap wrestling in bars, and the big-time WWF show. “I could not believe the shit I saw on stage, man – gang rape and forced anal sex and the subsequent beating of the victim. The message is: You can fuck whatever you want, as long as you’re the guy doing the fucking.
“And as long as you beat the shit out of him once you’re done, everything’s cool and all the eight-year-olds will cheer you. That’s what really offended me, was how many kids were at that show.”
Borg concurs. “You can be an effeminate character in wrestling, it’s encouraged; but you have to be a bad guy.”
Hagen sums up: “It’s a bunch of big boys doing locker-room shit, waving their dicks in each other’s faces and tryin’ to look important. All the empowerment in wrestling comes at the expense of guys that aren’t as masculine as they are.”
“But that’s onstage,” Borg interjects. “Offstage, they’re the sweetest guys you’d ever wanna meet.” Also, he points out, Piledriver depicts B-league scrappers, not the pros. “They’ve still got some innocence to ’em. They can’t afford cocaine, so they’re reasonably nice.”
Hagen, who is also a composer, columnist and TV host, credits Edmonton’s cultural scene with facilitating his move from drag to theatre and writing. “That’s how we all became playwrights and recording artists and authors, from humble beginnings like the ’87 Fringe.”
Though the drag community ostracized him after he wrote his first book about the gals at Edmonton’s bar Flashback, he says drag is “still a very huge part of what I do and who I am.”
Piledriver also came at the right time for Borg. “At a certain point you go, ‘I’m sick of writing skits,’ and start writing plays,” he says, adding that every Edmonton artist is used to multi-tasking.
Hagen confirms their hands-on, take-charge method. “Wes [Borg] did the original sound design. The two of us wrote it. All of us choreographed the fights. I’m co-producing. Wes makes the commercials. You do what you gotta do. And you end up being good at this stuff.”
But taking a show on the road has proven tough, given the bureaucracy and regulations of funding agencies and actors’ unions. Before this venture, Borg always puzzled over why more theatre companies weren’t touring, as musicians seem to. “Dealing with [Actors’] Equity, it became clear why: It’s fuckin’ impossible!
“Seems every union set up to help artists and companies does everything they can to make sure you can’t do your show without jumping through six million hoops. We got really lucky and managed to find the money to put the damn thing on.”
It would be more economical to take the show to Amsterdam, says Hagen. “The flight’s cheaper!”
Alberta’s vibrant theatre scene is self-sufficient. As Bob White, head of Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary, said recently: “We don’t give a fuck what Toronto thinks of our shows.”
“True,” says Hagen, but he points to an irony: Though the show was well received out west, no US interest surfaced until it was listed in Buddies’ current season. “Suddenly, it’s legitimate.”
Borg adds: “Toronto is as far as Americans can get in their heads about what Canada is. At some point you have to show up and flash your tits in Toronto, or fade into obscurity.”
“I would have said flashing my cock,” says Hagen.
Talk of body parts with these jokers leads inevitably to The Vagina Monologues. For their spin on it, they want Saskatchewan’s capital in the title – and a new plot. “It’s about getting laid in Regina,” says Borg, deadpanning. “It’s a seven-hour play.”
When the two learn that management for Making Porn (another touring production currently playing Toronto) charges extra for front row tickets, they both want the same policy enforced for Piledriver. “For the sex scene,” enthuses Hagen. “Stick around for the cock-swingin’ extravaganza after the show,” Borg kids.
Titillation aside, the most astonishing thing about Piledriver is that it’s based on real life. “We know for a fact,” says Borg, “that there were gay wrestlers touring around. Harvey [Jones] called them a bunch of queens – not drag queens – but queens like Harvey, a huge six-foot-four, 262-pound guy.
“But when you got him drunk, boy, was he a sister! A bunch of these butch-lookin’ guys would get on a bus and it would be, ‘Oh, Girl!’ all the way to the next town, then get off, put on their lamé capes and feather headresses, act tough and beat the crap out of each other for a bunch of guys who would kill them if they knew they were fags.
“They had their boyfriends on the bus and the whole bit.”
The play’s title refers to one of those fake wrestling moves. As Hagen describes it, “You put a guy upside down in a sort of standing 69, then drop to your knees and break his neck.” Lovely.
He quotes a real wrestler, visiting backstage in Winnipeg, “Excellent piledriver, guys. Do you know how dangerous that is?” The maneouvre is now done with absolute safety, Borg insists. “Any Equity people reading this? It’s all done with wires, harnesses and a net!”
“We actually fight really hard,” says Hagen. “We’re so sore we can hardly move – all we can do is whine for the last hour after rehearsals.”
It’s suggested that they need some beautiful young creatures to relax their tired muscles after a show. Borg, 33, moans, “If only we were beautiful young creatures, we could get ’em.”
Hagen notes his recent 37th birthday. “Kevin [the boyfriend] was teasing me about being the oldest fucker on the stage.” He sounds rueful for the toll taken by his years in drag. “Man, that make-up remover, I swear. ”
And you thought wrestling was tough.
$18. 8pm. Tue-Sat.
PWYC. Sun. 2:30pm.
Tue, Mar 27-Apr 15.
Buddies In Bad Times Theatre.
12 Alexander St.