Thursday, September 17, 2009

Martial Masculinities

Just a quick shout-out, in the midst of the Fringe, to Eye Heart Productions' offering of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's Good Boys and True, now playing at the Firehall Arts Centre until this Saturday. Last night's house was pitifully empty, a shame for a play as insightful about the relationship between misogyny and homophobia as this one, and for a production, crisply directed by Jeff Hyslop, that features uniformly excellent performances.

The play, set at an elite private boys' school (St. Joseph's) on the east coast of America in the late 1980s, concerns a sex tape that has been making the rounds of the locker room, and that would seem to feature the god-like captain of St. Joe's football team, Brandon Hardy (a very affecting Alex Coulombe), filming himself having aggressive sex with a townie girl--one Cheryl Moodie (Claire Robertson) we later discover, who seems not to know she's being filmed. The tape finds its way into Coach Shea's (Greg Bishop) hands. Shea promptly calls Brandon's mother, Elizabeth (an excellent Teryl Rothery), who in her husband's absence must determine, with help from her public school teacher sister, Maddy (Tara Fynn), if it is indeed Brandon on the tape and, if so, why he committed such a heinous act.

The answer to the first question comes fairly quickly, and once Brandon has admitted that it is indeed him on the tape the weight of the play shifts to the particular culture of masculinity at St. Joe's (a mixture of class-based droit de seigneur and violent homosociality) that allows Brandon to not think twice about using and exploiting Cheryl in the way he does, as well as the personal circumstances in Brandon's own life that set in motion his actions in the first place. And it is here that we gradually learn the full scope of Brandon's relationship with his gay best friend, Justin (Taylor Bishop), a relationship that if not wholly reciprocal in a sexual sense, does betray where Brandon's real feelings lie and why, at least until he graduates from St. Joe's, he felt compelled to prove as unambiguously as possible his heterosexual credentials.

I actually saw an earlier production of this play performed by members of the legendary Steppenwolf Company in Chicago in 2007, with none other than Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey in the title role of Elizabeth Hardy. I much preferred Rothery's performance, if not this entire production, which felt less earnest, and yet didn't, in the process, lose any of its sense of moral outrage at the normative perpetuation of gender and class roles in our society.

I'm not sure if Aguirre-Sacasa has revised the play since that Steppenwolf production, or if Hyslop made some strategic cuts. But I seem to recall Brandon eventually coming out to his mother in the earlier version, whereas here he breaks irrevocably with Justin and retrenches even further into an internalized homophobia. I also remember a more explicit conversation between Elizabeth and Coach Shea about his own humiliation at the hands of her husband when they were both students at St. Joe's, a conversation that is left more oblique and open-ended here. I can live with the latter change, but I'm not sure how I feel about the former. It gives the play, despite its non-sequential ending (retained from the earlier version), a no-exit feel to this spectator, and one can't help but apply that to the larger culture of heteronormative masculinity.


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