If Anthony Johnston is any bit as charismatic and charming onstage as he is on Skype, we’re all in for a big treat when his duet of solo shows arrives in Toronto.
Now, to those of you who lost interest at the words "solo show," keep reading! This show, created by the award-winning duo of Johnston and Nathan Schwartz, promises something different. “We think of it as a sort of anti-solo show,” Johnston explains, referring to the medium’s tendency to verge on therapy (my words, not his). Tenderpits and Revenge of the Popinjay, instead, are a multimedia exploration of storytelling, abstraction and the power of positive thinking. “We sort of spoof these things and just sort of spoof solo theatre at the same time.”
Sounds pretty simple, but beneath this spirit of spoofing, the play has a heavy history. In the middle of the first run of Tenderpits in New York, Johnston received news of his sister's death. The rest of the run was cancelled, and the show was shelved as he spent time with his family.
But that wasn’t the end of Tenderpits. “The show was committed to another event in New York, and we decided to go ahead and do it but not deny that it has been affected by the event.” Just like themes of immigration and violence, this life event became a part of the play, albeit in a subtextual way. But more on that later.
In Tenderpits, we hear the story of a young gay wizard who journeys from Canada to New York City, where he goes on an R-rated romp involving an illegal immigrant, sex and Chekhov.
The second part, Revenge of the Popinjay, is something of a rap opera about an outbreak of violence against straight people. This one boasts the warning of graphic content and “extreme heterophobia.” Awesome.
Looking at these synopses, it’s hard to see how this work can be considered autobiographical, but Johnston is clear that his personal experiences have informed the stories.
“Tenderpits is about my immigration from Canada to New York. Obviously, I never immigrated on the back of a magical moose. But that’s how it’s presented in the show,” Johnston says. He explains further, “I’m sure that I experienced anger after my sister died. But in the show maybe that anger manifests as an evil octopus and makes me kill people.”
When asked why he and Schwartz chose to tell the truth through such an extension of imagination, he replies, “It’s the way a painter might go out to the edge of the lake and have this beautiful landscape, but maybe they paint with colours that aren’t actually there, because that’s the way they feel or experience it.”