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Undercurrents Theatre Festival: A Quiet Sip of Coffee

By Brian Carroll on February 15, 2014

There are some things on which playwrights Anthony Johnston and Nathan Schwartz agree. They agree that they wrote a prank letter to a fundamentalist “ex-gay” organization. They asked for funds to develop a new play. The organization invited them to workshop the play at the group’s rural retreat. The offer was conditional: they had to spend two weeks participating in gay conversion therapy. Johnston (gay) and Schwartz (straight) agreed to these terms and joined the therapy session, but under assumed names. At the time they were best friends.

So far so good.

Years later they have attempted to tell this story as a piece of theatre. From this point they disagree on what actually happened during those two weeks.

What is truth? What is fiction? What is the truth embedded within the fiction?

Like Hamlet, there is a play within a play. Specifically the pair have to workshop a new play, which they title Never Cry Wolfman. Since the letter was a prank, the new play is nothing more than a title. When the organization invites them to meet and discuss their proposal, they realize that they have to write a draft from scratch, during the drive to the meeting. They base the new play (and their assumed names) loosely on An American Werewolf in London. < They have decided to tell the story of this experience as a piece of theatre, a play, a fiction. But which story? Johnston’s story? Or Schwartz’s story? So Never Cry Wolfman becomes a play within which story? The stories interleave, so you have to keep your wits about you to keep them straight.

In Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, the main characters agree that something has happened. But they disagree about how, why and who’s at fault. Kurosawa may know, but he never tells the audience. Similarly Johnston and Schwartz disagree. But it’s not that they won’t tell us what really happened. They can’t.

At first Johnston and Schwartz play it for laughs. There are a number of jokes about their acting ability, and their inability to find work following drama school when their peers are finding success. They come across as earnest bumblers.

They even tell the audience that what they are presenting is not the real story, but a play (fiction) about what actually happened (non-fiction). But then there’s a meta discussion about the play that they’re presenting. They can’t agree on the the content of that play. They can’t even agree on why they’ve decide to get together to tell the story. So now we have a play within a play within a play.

If this sounds overly complex, there are clues to help the audience keep things straight. The characters of Never Cry Wolfman are Philippe and Gaston. They wear masks. The assumed names at the retreat in the play are Jack and Dave. As their “real” selves arguing over the content of the play, they are Anthony and Nathan.

For a long while, there are enough chuckles that the audience can sit back, relax and be amused by the shenanigans on stage. We get introduced to the director of the program, Jonathan, and a few of the members of the group therapy session. Jonathan rejects both the “gays were born that way” and the “gays choose to be gay” hypotheses. He believes that traumatic events have prevented gay men from forming healthy non-sexual relationships with other men, giving them a false sense of their masculinity and preventing them from forming healthy sexual relationships with women.

His methods are controversial, he maintains, but they work. He “does whatever it takes” to succeed.

At first his process seem unusual but harmless to the point of being laughable: basketball, archery and horse grooming are presented as masculine activities. (What is this supposed to imply about women’s sports?) And the audience laughs at many of them.

But then it turns darker, in ways that would be spoilers to reveal. Johnston starts to doubt his own sexuality. Schwartz tries to remind him that they are undercover. In the play outside the play outside the play, they disagree about what actually happened between them.

It becomes clear to the audience that Jonathan has manipulated Johnston’s sense of reality. But what about Schwartz? Furthermore, Johnston has formed a friendship with another therapy group member, Michael. Or is it Schwartz who has?

Darker and darker, as Jonathan’s methods become more and more disturbing. If either Johnston or Schwartz’s story holds the truth, even a grain, then the process of gay conversion therapy is placing some gay men in great psychological jeopardy.

If any of it is true, then this show presents a chilling and disturbing insight into a process that is advertised as benign.

Because it’s theatre, I want to believe it’s merely fiction.

But it bears remarkable resemblance to tales told by gay men who have undergone attempts to turn them straight.

Shudder!

Make no mistake, this is mature content with male nudity, frank discussion and portrayal of sexual behaviour and descriptions of extreme violence. Not for the faint of heart, it’s damned powerful theatre.

A Quiet Sip of Coffee by AnimalParts Theatre is playing at the Undercurrents Festival at the Great Canadian Theatre Company February 16th at 3PM, 21st at 7PM, 22nd at 7PM and 23rd at 3PM. Single tickets are $15 + HST. A three show pass is $40 + HST. A six show pass is $60 + HST.