Saturday, May 11, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Stopheart

Vivien Endicott-Douglas. photo: Jeremy Mimnagh 

Not Entirely a Review: Stopheart
Tale of Small Town Ontario Hits Awful Close to Home
by Christian Baines

Sometimes a review just doesn’t cut it.

I’ve heard theatre reviews described as acts of violence. Callous, brutal ‘buyers guides’ that reduce acts of countless months, sometimes years of creation to ‘Should I part with fifty bucks or shouldn’t I?’ When I review a work – like many critics, I’d like to think – I try to offer within that review the basis of a discussion. Or at least some contribution to it. But in framing that discussion, I – again, like others – try to maintain a respectful impartiality and distance from the work I’m seeing. 

But I can’t pretend to maintain such a distance from Amy Lee Lavoie’s Stopheart. Sure, I can tell you whether I think it’s a well-written piece of work. Well performed (without doubt). Well staged (for the most part). I can needle apart its various shortcomings or vast tracts of irritatingly redundant script in act one. But all seem fairly trivial next to what the play speaks to in broader terms. The desire for affection, from those with the greatest potential to harm us.

This is why it is impossible for me to simply ‘review’ this play impartially, and why those wishing to avoid spoilers should probably stop reading now. Because I need to reveal a very significant plot detail in order to make my thoughts on Stopheart clear.

The central plot, however, is quite enough.

Elian (Amitai Marmorstein) is a young man living with his parents in rural Ontario. His sexually questioning eye falls on Bear (Garret C. Smith), the freshly paroled convict brother of his best friend July (Vivien Endicott-Douglas). Now, to put my critical hat on for a moment, this is probably the only plotline worth investing in, because the parallel plot involving Elian’s mother Goldie (Elizabeth Saunders) rehearsing her own funeral, though ghoulishly ironic, feels like whimsical salvage from Alan Ball’s toss-out bin. 

The central plot, however, is quite enough. When Elian gets his moment with Bear, what takes place is brutal, fast, makes no freaking sense, and turns everything the young man thought he knew or understood about his attractions and feelings inside out. There are no answers and no explanations. Just undiluted pain and horror, inflicted by someone who moments prior, had offered only affection and tenderness.

So my hat comes off to Ms Lavoie for so perfectly capturing the essence of this experience. To the point I felt almost compelled to get up and walk out of the theatre. Twice in fact – again on seeing Marmorstein covered in stage blood, pleading for much needed attention. One or two other narrative tricks are employed to wrench at our hearts as well, and these might have seemed melodramatic, if they weren’t so chilling. By this point, I’m sick to my stomach.

As gay men (not exclusively, but perhaps with greater frequency) this is something that occasionally happens.

Perhaps this visceral reaction can be attributed to the fact that not five months have passed since my own eye snagged on a rather handsome, seemingly very pleasant, intelligent and well-spoken young man. One completely unambiguous about his similar interest in me. Forty minutes later, I found myself wandering the streets of a strange city, bleeding from my head, looking for help, hoping I’d managed to outrun this guy.

As gay men (not exclusively, but perhaps with greater frequency) this is something that occasionally happens. When a fairly slim minority of the population you’re attracted to might be attracted to you, and a further minority of them are in a state of self-loathing, the potential for violence is all too real. In fact, in some administrations, like my home state of Queensland, Australia, ‘gay panic’ defence can still be used in court as grounds for a more lenient sentence in cases of assault and even murder.

True, the risk has been greatly diminished as the gay community has become more visible. But what if you, like Elian, live in a small town without access to such a community? What if you’re not even sure you’re gay? What if you just know you desire this person? What if your only outlet for sexual frustration is this hyper-masculine creature? One who could probably  kill you and possibly would if he knew you had feelings for him? 

What if you seek out such a man because you just can’t stand the sterilized ‘McGay brand’ that has grown to strangle and resign our community to a state of mainstream acceptance at the cost of subversiveness? What if you despise the notion that being gay is ‘okay, provided we stick to our own kind’ and don’t actually pose a threat to the hetero-normative image of masculinity in any way? Is this our perceived place in the world and does resisting it earn us a beating? Does the simple act of expressing desire – even in a situation in which that desire is returned – earn that too?  

These are the answers Stopheart never attempts to pursue, and rightly so. After all, none of them occurred to me particularly at the time I was attacked, but they sure as hell factored into my thoughts afterward. And sure enough, Stopheart invites – nay, demands – that same sense of helplessness and mental swimming, long after the monster behind that handsome face has dropped his mask, drawn your blood and reminded you of your place in his eyes. One final piece of staging in Stopheart clearly shows Bear behind bars again after his new crime. But it’s incredibly cold comfort, with no real sense of justice attached – and again, this feels so much like the reality of this scenario.

So to replace my critical hat for just a moment, Stopheart, for all its silly indulgences, digs at small town life and misfired attempts at comic relief, is a phenomenally potent work that deserves to be seen and must be respected. I praise its ambitions and many aspects of its execution. But Ms Lavoie will forgive and understand me I’m sure, when I say I never want to sit through anything like it again.

Stopheart plays at Factory Theatre until May 26.


  1. Thank you for this incredibly brave and deeply personal response to what was a very powerful piece of theatre. I attended the opening night of StopHeart and there were many people in the audience who were inhaling loudly fighting the flood of tears that the final scenes invoked.

  2. a great, and very fair, review. great play too, I agree with you on that. I feel bad for some of the press its getting, but you managed to hit the real nail on the head about how chilling some of the scenes are. very well put, and a very brave personal connection to voice. thank you for sharing.


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