TotoToo Theatre’s production of Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!, playing until Sunday 10 October at Academic Hall, shows how a 20-year old script full of dated cultural references can still feel fresh and relevant through solid directing and acting.
Love! Valour! Compassion! follows a group of 8 gay men over the course of the major American summer weekends (Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day) at a country house in upstate New York. Set in what was at the time the present day, this play debuted in New York in 1994 and won the Tony Award for Best Play the following year.
The script’s age is the first obstacle to a good production of it, but director Chantal Plante’s approach turns what was originally a contemporary slice-of-life and reframes it as a detailed period piece – an approach that very much works to the production’s advantage. Terrence McNally’s script is full of contemporary references – at one point an older character condescendingly jokes that the younger guys present can listen to their Madonna albums all they want, with the understanding that contemporary pop music is always perceived by older generations to be culturally diluted. Other references include JFK Jr.; characters watching CNN (more respectable then than it is now); and an issue that was much more immediate in 1994, particularly in reference to gay art: AIDS.
The AIDS-related content is probably the aspect of this script that grounds this play in the ‘90s the most. It is absolutely still possible for anyone to contract HIV (gay or not) but it is far less of an issue today, especially for a younger generation of gay men whose collective memory doesn’t go back far enough to remember the epidemic of the 1980s and ‘90s. Seeing how AIDS affects the lives of these characters living 20 years ago (some of them being forced by circumstance to deal with it day by day) is an fascinating historical look at how AIDS affected people in a gay context then (especially when you consider that AIDS was initially perceived as a ‘gay problem’). Since the mid-‘90s however, the gay connotations associated with AIDS have gradually faded, leaving little functional difference between it and any other incurable, terminal disease. As a member of that younger generation of gay men, my own experiences have shown that STIs like herpes or chlamydia are a more pressing concern today. This is to say nothing of overcoming institutionalized bigotry (such as our inability to donate blood unless we can prove at least 5 years of sexual inactivity), which has been an ongoing movement for decades but has substantially entered the public perception with the rise of social media over the last 10 years.
Of the 2 characters with AIDS in this play, both are unfortunately stereotypical: Buzz, whose flamboyant personality and obsessive love of musical theatre thankfully overshadows his need to “singlehandedly solve this” (his words, not mine), and James, the terminal patient whose frailty can’t contain his angelic benevolence. This is another aspect of this text that hasn’t aged so well either: some (though not all) of the characters are one-sided, verging on stereotypical. There’s Ramon, the young Latino who wears his sex appeal like the clothes that he doesn’t; Bobby, the younger boyfriend to aging choreographer Gregory, whose sole personality trait is ‘blind’; John, James’ twin brother who is of course his polar opposite and rubs everyone the wrong way although for some reason they keep inviting him back to the country house.
The dated cultural references, particularly the AIDS-related content, insuperably tie this play to the era that it came from, which is why I find it admirable that director Plante didn’t even try to update it – it’s stuck in the ‘90s, and we’ve moved on. Instead, Plante has taken a historical approach, ensuring that her actors know exactly what they’re talking about when they make a then-topical reference. Even if I didn’t know the cultural attitude towards JFK Jr. at the time, James’ surprised reaction to Buzz’s confident (and mistaken) assertion that he was gay tells me that JFK Jr. was probably a heterosexual heartthrob at the time. When the actors (and therefore the characters) can confidently negotiate older and possibly unfamiliar historical material (Daryl Hannah, anyone?), the audience’s attention is drawn less to the setting and more to the characters themselves and their relations to each other. In this way, even if it’s not possible to appreciate this play in the same way that audiences did in 1995, it is possible to appreciate how an audience in 1995 might have appreciated it – another layer to wade through, but it’s impossible to pretend that this play is current (20 years have passed, and Plante has wisely chosen to accept it). As for the one-sidedness of some of the characters – well, that’s up to the actors, and for the most part they do an admirable job.
Josh Kemp delivers an excellent interpretation of Buzz, whose overly affected personality, constant references to obscure musical theatre, and continuous assertions that literally every celebrity mentioned in this play (and there are quite a few) is gay could come off as extremely annoying in the hands of a less capable actor, but Kemp’s energy radiates from his hips as he swings and sways across the stage. His physical embodiment of the role works perfectly – even when Buzz breaks down or gets angry there is no ‘click’ between emotions, just a very smooth and natural transition within himself. Drake Evans’ Ramon also deserves a shoutout, not just for the sheer amount of nerve that it must have taken to spend that much time nude onstage, but for the fierceness that he brings to the role – this is a young man who knows he can get what he wants, and isn’t afraid to go after it, whether it be a dance career, the last word in an argument, or his host’s younger boyfriend. Finally, Lawrence Evenchick’s double turn as twins James and John would be hard enough considering the difference between the two, but he also has the task of playing both with a British accent. His diction is smooth and rounded, and though there are occasional slips he does a fine job of holding onto the accent. One scene towards the end features both twins onstage, with bitter John reproaching his sleeping brother for being the beloved one. The emotional intensity that Evenchick brings to this scene is wonderfully controlled and doesn’t go over the top, drawing your attention away from the absurdity of the scene as it is written. The standard of acting in this show is fairly high in general, but Kemp, Evans, and Evenchick stand out particularly.
Chantal Plante must have worked extensively with David Magladry for the lighting design – McNally’s script mostly consists of short scenes, often with several in a row taking place at more or less the same time in different locations around the country house. Additionally, the flow of time is hardly realistic – at one point the characters all step forward and talk about how they die – but the lighting design as well as the non-realistic set allow for an easy of flow of scene into scene. Glynis Ellens’ costumes are also wonderfully accurate for the personalities of each character: couple Arthur (the butch-er one) and Perry (the less butch one), for example. Arthur is consistently in muted colours and styles appropriate to a 45-50 year old man, whereas Perry sports a colourful Ralph Lauren Polo-type look. Neither character is overly flamboyant, but neither are their clothes.
For a city that is relatively starved of queer theatre (when you compare us to our neighbours Toronto and Montreal), Ottawa has an ally in TotoToo Theatre. This was my first TotoToo production, but hopefully not the last. The quality of this production leaves me eager for their next production in January, Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna.
Love! Valour! Compassion!
A TotoToo Theatre Production
Written by Terrence McNally
Directed by Chantal Plante
Musical Direction by Paul Legault
Choreography by Jasmine Lee
Stage Management by Val Bogan
Starring: Drake Evans, Lawrence Evenchick, Josh Kemp, Dean Ross, Stavros Sakiadis, Patrick Teed, and Shaun Toohey
Assistant Stage Manager: Nadine Cheney
Set and Lighting by David Magladry
Sound Design by Robert Krukowski
Costume Design by Glynis Ellens
Make-up Design by Corey Stone
Properties by Jennifer Barkley
Sound Technician: David Ing
Front of House Manager: Pam Chartrand
Playing at the University of Ottawa’s Academic Hall, 7:30 pm, October 7-10