Saturday, February 23, 2013

My Funny Valentine at the Firehall

Dave Deaveau's My Funny Valentine, on at the Firehall Arts Centre through March 2 in a Zee Zee Theatre production directed by Cameron Mackenzie, is based on the 2008 murder of Lawrence King, a gay 15-year-old murdered by the male classmate to whom he had given a Valentine's Day card. Coming exactly 10 years after the murder of Matthew Shepard, and with a similar gay panic defense being mounted in the subsequent trial, the case drew international attention.

Just as the Shepard case inspired Tectonic Theater Project to interview residents of Laramie, Wyoming affected by the killing, and to stage their voices in the much produced and multi-award-winning The Laramie Project, so has Deveau done extensive research into the press and interview responses of different members of King's hometown of Oxnard, California. However, eschewing TTP's route of producing a large ensemble work of documentary theatre, Deveau has chosen to craft a series of fictional monologues based on what I'm assuming are composite characters developed out of his research, and all delivered by a single actor, in this case the hyper-talented Anton Lipovetsky.

Lipovetsky, identified as The Collector in the program, is already on stage when we enter the theatre, unshaven and scruffily dressed, busy sifting through papers and clippings and photographs that form a circle around a small shrine of objects and artifacts (the set and costume designer is Marina Szijarto). Snatches of media reports about the shooting are broadcast as audience members settle into their seats, appropriate given that the first voice we hear from Lipovetsky once the performance begins is that of the small potatoes local reporter who first broke the story. Among other things, we learn that he interrupts some romantic canoodling with his wife in a rented motel room because, in turning on the TV to drown out the sounds of their lovemaking, he nevertheless still has enough hard news instincts to know a scoop when he sees one. Details like this reveal Deveau's own sharp instincts as a playwright: not just that one can tell King's story in this circumlocutionary way without sacrificing any of its drama, but also that our identification with each character whose voice we hear over the course of the next 90 minutes will in part stem from what about each goes on in spite or despite or even as a result of King's loss.

Those characters include an 11-year-old girl dreaming of a career in the glamourous world of high fashion; a homophobic salesman whose son went to the same school as King; and two teachers--one male, the other female--differently affected by King's murdered. The voice of the female teacher, Helen, is the only one that recurs in the play, and it is also where Deveau's writing, Lipovetsky's acting, and Mackenzie's directorial choices combine to produce the most affecting results. Helen, who is always searching in her purse for something she cannot find, or spilling coffee or wine down the front of her blouse, has been completely undone by King's death, even as she rouses herself--and others--to action, losing her feckless husband in the process. And in the course of revealing how--as a teacher, a woman, a person--her heart has been broken as a result of these events, Helen also reminds us what is so unfunny about them: that tolerance is not enough; that gun control is not enough; that even hate crime legislation, in paradoxically memorializing the crime and its victim(s), fails to interrogate adequately the violence that produced that crime in the first place.

As I have written elsewhere, also in connection with Matthew Shepard, part of this interrogation involves acknowledging that Shepard and King and Aaron Webster and Brandon Teena and Sakia Gunn and Reeva Steenkamp and the women at the École Polytéchnique and from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, died not because they were queer or feminist or prostitutes, but because their killers were all straight men. This play, in making its "gay protagonist" an absent presence, forces us to confront this issue. Like Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, it deserves to be seen every February around the world.


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