Saturday, February 6, 2010

CLOUD 9, Caryl Churchill, Directed Alisa Palmer, Panasonic Theatre, Toronto 06.02.10

So, Bon'Lay'Lay was in the city last night. (S)he's a drag king I know from my days gigging at the Sala Rossa, an old red-velour-curtained show hall way up on St Laurent Boulevard, in Montreal. The Sala's the kind of venue usually packed with argentinian tango fanatics from the old country entertaining sailors in off the ships that stop on their way down the St Lawrence. But every few months, a fantastically gay promoter named Serge would gather a ragtag group of singers, jugglers, fire breathers, exotic dancers, and extremely short people together at the Sala for what Serge described as 'un goddam freashow, ostie'. I'd invariably sing some Brel or Kurt Weil songs with Anisa C. and Laurel S. as my back ups, and they'd of course ensure to have carefully orchestrated various 'wardrobe malfunctions' in the movement score of their singing to keep the act spicy. The dusky warm glow of the Sala, where people demonstrated their general social subversion by occasionally (or so it was said) fellating each other in the bathrooms and regularly (and this I can attest to) smoking cigars in the audience, was certainly THE place to be in Montreal the nights of Serge's fantastic 'freaksow, ostie'.

For his part, Bon'Lay'Lay often performed this stunning kind of strip tease act that stimulated the audience, irrespective of their gender or sexual orientation, to dizzy heights of arousal. Bon'Lay'Lay's act, however—and this was the testament to his genius—usually only resulted in him removing one or two pieces of clothing, or even sometimes nothing more than him subtly opening his shirt to expose a ripped set of abs, before the Sala's tattered red curtain came down with the lights and, even as the audience moaned and yelled for more, smothered all further possibility of titillation. And yet, Bon'Lay'Lay was one of the stars of the show...

It took me forever to catch on that 'he' was a 'she' in drag, although the ever-evolving set of fake mustachios (70's porn 'tash, handlebar, fu manchu, occasional goatee) should have given it away. Anyway, it was only late one night after a gig when a band of ribald tango-istas, drunk on some kind of native palm wine and very angry at having been displaced yet again by the Serge's ostentatious crew, crashed the Sala, without their men partners, looking to dance. Most of those spectators still nursing their cigars and arguing about sex and Quebec politics quickly scattered in the face of the strident arrivals. But Bon'Lay'Lay stood up, affirmed a very masculine pose, and suggested quite loudly "GET THE 'ELL OUT OF 'ERE, YOU WHORES'. After a brief pause, during which surprise was no doubt being registered, the argentinian women remonstrated, shouting, variously suggesting that Bon 'Lay'Lay was not going to be able to stop them, spitting at him, and finally taunting him with statements to the effect of "You're not going to beat up a group of ladies, are you you coward? You're a man!'. In one quick gesture (and upon consideration, I now believe that velcro must have been involved) Bon'Lay'Lay removed the larger proportion of his clothing to reveal a svelte feminine physique, with a certain key area being defined by a gentle rise rather than a bulge, and two taped-down breasts masquerading as those famous (although heretofore never seen) pecs.

In the event that in our general shock we all hadn't quite understood exactly what was transpiring, Bon'Lay'Lay ripped her fake mustache with what one might describe as 'melodramatic' flair from her face and flung it to the floor in a defiant gesture where it landed as a kind of challenge to the now suddenly very quiet tango-istas. The room itself was also silent, even the cigar smoke stopped moving, eyes glared across dark spaces, and, as suddenly as they had arrived, the argentinian women withered and fled back onto the Boulevard from whence they had come, murmering invective as they danced off into the night. Needless to say that after a moment of apparently genuine bashfulness following her display of bravado, Bon'Lay'Lay retrieved her mustachio and, after not an insignificant amount of coaxing from a number of us, allowed herself to be celebrated late into the evening for her territorial trail-blazing with an excess of cheap wine, cigars, and increasingly boisterous retellings of the evening's events.

It only seemed appropriate that when Bon'Lay'Lay was in town that we go to see Churchill's Cloud 9, the cross-dressing fantasia described in the publicity material as 'Churchill's sex play': guaranteed to sell seats and with the promise of not a dry seat in the house. Quite used as I am to uneven, boring, unchallenging theatre in Toronto, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this show was at least even and competent on the level of performances. The actors, mostly featuring pedigrees from the Shaw Festival, were clearly experiencing the joy and jouissance of being emancipated from the Shaw's often highly restraining and composed acting regime into the playful and comedic stylization, a kind of amped up comedy of manners, that director Alisa Palmer had proposed to them. Maybe she was enjoying not being at the Shaw herself? In fact, it seems as if all these artists had perhaps one way or another had previously been cross-dressing as unimaginative bores (Isn't that what theatre in this country asks us to do?), but had come out in this show to reveal themselves as ironic, playful, fun loving embodiments of Churchill's vastly satyrical social critique of Empire, colonialization, gender, and the family.

Everything quickly announces itself as reversed, layered, troubled, and complex in this play. The opening number features all actors on stage singing together and annoucing their various roles and functions to the audience. It is 1880s Africa, and the natives are restless. In the colonial home around which the action revolves are Edward the son, played by Anne-Marie Macdonald, who just can't stop playing with dolls; Betty, his mother, played by a man (Evan Buluing); her mother by a black woman (Yanna McIntosh); and the black servant by a white man with an afro (Ben Carlson). The father of the family, Clive (David Jansen), demands respectable and appropriate behaviour from everyone around him, but spends his time chasing and giving oral sex to the butch Mrs Saunders (Megan Follows--crap, what would Lucy Maud have said!). Similarly, the swashbuckling hero Harry Bagley (Blair Williams) arrived in to help with the uprising by local blacks seems to be fucking everyone, including his friend Clives' wife, the servant, and even Clive's boy (again, poor Lucy Maude!). It's messed up, witty, playful, unabashedly direct, to the point where Bon'Lay'Lay informed me that he had heard even some of the many couples of old gay men in Burberry scarves that seemed to populate at least half the audience harrumphedly describe the show as 'shocking' while peeking at each others willies at the next urinal over in the john during intermission.

In the second act, the date is 1980, but time has only moved forward 25 years for the characters. Vicky (a doll in the first act) has grown up, as has Edward, and we see them trying to figure out their lives and children, ultimately living together (and sleeping with, as we were reminded not a few times) with a lesbian. Sexuality either is discursive commodity, a series of predatorial flings, or orgies in parks, all tied together by Churchill's charcateristically loose dramaturgy (no pun intended. really) that leaves the audience drifting somewhat by the end. In fact, audience response at the end was tepid, although they seem to have been pretty thoroughly engaged throughout...

What I found most interesting about this show is the question it raised about the audience's ability to shift registers and to consider this text's relevance to the Canadian context. There we were, smoked-salmon socialists who had all just dropped $160 for two tickets, fiddling with the Prince Alberts in our pockets and chuckling away at the contradictions and collapse of the British Emire and all their 'problems' in Africa and London, forgetting perhaps that we're sitting in a theatre on blood-land stolen from Canadian first peoples in a theatre called The Panasonic, a stark reminder of the fact that the multi-national rules supreme in it's patronage of the arts these days. What would have spurred all the erstwhile rebels in the audience out on the streets to demand recognition of Canada's ongoing pornographic relationship of exploitation of natives, women, immigrants, the poor, homosexuals, and the very land itself? Did actor David Janssen not feel a burning pain in his nether regions brought about by the fact that one of his last creations, the almost camply racist 'Ubuntu' at the Tarragon (see my letter to the editor at ), represents a direct continuation of the kind of activity being parodied in Cloud Nine?

Perhaps I underestimate my confrères and consoeurs, but how can we ourselves come out of political closets, our social and artistic concealments in which we collectively suppress our desire and hope for a different world so as to be able to pass as a neo-con like everyone else, to emerge from these coccoons to create and demand both beauty and the spirit of universal justice to be made manifest in every piece of theatre we work on and see? Bon'Lay'Lay (who sometimes goes by Bob'Lai'Lai in Toronto in-order to help fend off the kind of literal minded anglo pleasure seekers you get down here) was moved to vigorous applause at the general tenor of the evening, but I could tell from his silence after that no night at the theatre had yet ever been able to match the showdown with the argentinians at the Sala Rossa, and that his peripatetic search for universal rebellion would have to continue unabated...

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