Friday, November 22, 2013

Review: (Toronto) The Gay Heritage Project

Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn (photo: Guntar Kravis)
Gay Heritage Moments: a concept for a new show?
But they don’t quite add up to a whole
by Jason Booker

Enthusiastically performed, amusing and touching by turns, The Gay Heritage Project is a great idea on paper. It aims to depict the people that have come before now, the events and actions that have shaped Gay history or the Gay identity up to the present day. The show, however, gestating for the past five years with performer-creators Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn and Andrew Kushnir, never quite figures out how to string all these ideas together – the parts are very strong but the whole doesn’t match.

The evening runs a little long and requires a stronger structure than these rough five acts each with an elusive title. And, of course, any time artists count off how long until the end of the show for the audience, the play feels two or three times longer than without the reminder. Often, these creative moments feel like sketches more than significant scenes, as there is no through-line or architecture. As a result, the lively and entertaining pieces assault the senses, the mind and the memory without offering a new voice or opinion, or even a final takeaway.

The piece is mostly performed in a vocal masque technique that asks an actor (who is also the writer) to play all the roles in a scene and from as many or as strange a perspective as possible, like an argument as seen by a piece of furniture in the room. So there is a distance emphasized between the performer and the material and the audience, instead of make-believing that reality is being depicted.

Some of the topics that The Gay Heritage Project covers seem doused in internalized self-hatred, such as Kushnir’s confrontation with artists of the past who had Gay tendencies but no word for Gay or sexual identity to claim as their own. Many of the artistic men Kushnir has gathered (and portrays) had relationships with young men and boys – which the character of Leonardo daVinci points out was natural in their era but becomes shameful or judged by our modern-day standards. The issue of privilege also arises, as three middle-class North American white Gay men acknowledge that their history is the one told most often – not that of someone of colour, not that of someone from Eastern Europe, not that of a woman or someone without status or opportunity. While these are important points to note in creating the piece – that this play, by these men, cannot represent everyone – it makes one question why they tried at all instead of focusing on the story of an individual, like themselves, who could symbolize more… or for them to have simply encouraged a different set of performer-creators to tackle the idea.

But, quibbles aside, the piece is wildly entertaining and goes from strength to strength. Many of the sketches during the evening are hilarious; particularly ones where Atkins gets to show his physicality as in the opening or the Rosetta Stone scene. Other scenes remind us that our Canadian version of Gay history can be inspiring – bathhouse raids, anyone? – and ludicrous, with ads for action figures that fight inanimate objects such as a province or a legislative bill. Some of the moments are poignant, such as the Irish song at the end or the scenes with Kushnir exploring his Gay Ukrainian identity. Dunn gets to show a vulnerable side of himself as he explains the book that started this endeavour before all three artists reveal their heritage through the enacting of a scene with their mothers. And stay alert for the music montage at the end of act two – it’s fabulous!

One of the strongest pieces of the script also remains the one that makes this reviewer wonder for whom is the piece really meant. When Atkins offers a victim impact statement in a criminal case against the HIV-virus, he cries onstage. Not for lost friends or family, but for the lost mentors and the lost inspiration of a generation. However, looking around the audience the other night, the people of the generation that was decimated by the disease, who went through the trials of seeing their loved ones die, were the ones sitting in the seats. Is a play about the past, about heritage, meant for those that already know the material so that they can experience catharsis as the scenes resonate with their experiences? Or is the piece meant to educate and inform those that feel disconnected from the modern Gay community or those that feel there are no similarities between the past and now or the straight world and the Queer one? Sadly, presenting this work for three weeks at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre will probably never reach the young crowd who need to hear it or the straighter crowd who will probably never find it.

While the title or the topic might seem to ask the viewer to think hard about the content, the best is simply to hardly think. Sit back and enjoy the fun of The Gay Heritage Project; let the history wash your mind and maybe some stray bits will sink in, amidst the glorious display of humanity that these three performers offer.

The Gay Heritage Project runs Nov. 17 to  Dec. 8 

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