Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Explanation at The Cultch

Fresh off a standout performance in the Arts Club's recent production of Jitters (which I blogged about here), James Fagan Tait premiered his new play, The Explanation, at The Cultch's Culture Lab last night. Tait, who also directs this frank theatre production, highlights in his program notes the rather ironical premise of what is his first queer-themed show: how two straight men should end up married to each other.

Wearing a black wig, miniskirt, and combat boots, John (Kevin MacDonald), begins the account with a long opening monologue about how he started dressing up in women's clothes. The wondrous discovery of his inner femininity in a Value Village changing room occasions in John more than a simple outward transformation. While it's not always clear that it's being done consciously, Tait is deft in these opening passages in telegraphing some of the paradoxical non-alignments of gender expression and sexual identification. Which is also to say that when John puts on women's clothes, feminist solidarity doesn't automatically usurp a sense of masculine entitlement. For example, after he starts venturing out in public cross-dressed, John tells us he likes that men are staring at his ass, the sense of power this gives him--which is, on one level, just a reinforcing of the power he already had. And while he begins by correcting himself whenever he refers to himself as a "girl," amending this to "woman," eventually this pretence is dropped and thereafter John takes special delight in self-identifying as a "big ol' girl."

Eventually John, who lives in Burnaby, starts venturing downtown to the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library every Saturday in drag. (The timeframe of the play is a little fuzzy; there are several references to "pre-Yaletown" Vancouver, but other descriptions suggest that the VPL central branch being referred to is the one now at Homer and Robson.) On one such Saturday, while browsing among the Literature DVDs section, John meets Dick (Evan Frayne), who tells us in his opening monologue that when he first spied John he immediately thought: "This is the kind of woman who would go out with me." So Dick asks John to coffee and John says yes and in that moment Dick discovers that John is a man. But they have coffee anyway and the awkward thrill of this semi-public conversation liberates an additional something in each of them, which is how they end up dancing at a gay club on Davie Street later that night. Here, with the aid of Noam Gagnon's perfectly calibrated choreography, which mixes Dick's awkward straight white man's shuffle with John's unleashing of his inner diva, the two men cement their bond (James Coomber's on point sound design also helps to add great comic texture to these scenes). Soon a regular Saturday routine is established and a relationship is formed.

For questions of sexual identity and conjugality aside, what we are witnessing over the course of the play is at base the slow and by no means always smooth formation of a deep affective bond, and one that completely blows up the typical conventions of the bromance genre. Which is partly why I was disappointed in the rather conventional ending to the play. When, after mixing up their regular weekend pattern by having Dick cross-dress instead of John, the two men have drunken sex together, a crisis of identification threatens to destroy their friendship: are they gay, the two men muse separately to the audience. And does that even matter? Sorting through these questions, the men discover that they do in fact want to be together, including sexually. But not including drag. The final image is of John and Dick, dressed in suits, telling us not just that they've gotten married, but also that they've adopted two children. In its aping of what queer sociologist Lisa Duggan has diagnosed as the new "homonormativity," this scene actually entrenches the heternormative foundations of the two men's identities.

John and Dick were far more radical queer outlaws in their single days dancing up a storm in women's clothes.


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