With Finishing the Suit, Bear & Co. make a valuable addition to the history of queer theatre in Ottawa. Thematically rich and dealing with important aspects of gay identity and modern British history, Suit suffers from an existential premise that perhaps draws too much attention to itself, though its strengths, as well its strong directing and design choices, outweigh any weaknesses.
Suit introduces us to a nameless tailor who has recently lost both his boyfriend Jimmy and his former employer, the Duke of Windsor. As the tailor works on the Duke’s funeral suit, he also works through his guilt and unresolved feelings for both dead men, who appear to him as physical manifestations of his thoughts. The conversation between the three focuses on the intersection of faith, gay identity, nationality, and class differences: the tailor is a working-class New York Jew, Jimmy is (was?) a dancer from a poor family in Ireland, and the Duke (or David, as he was personally known) was formerly the King of England. There’s a lot of material to work with as a result: the emotional heart of the play focuses on the tailor’s relationships with the Duke, and later Jimmy, and while the other themes inform and help to colour the love story, they can at times distract from it.
Jimmy, as a poor Irishman, mocks and teases the Duke, which not only reflects his own personal jealousy of the former object of the tailor’s affections, but also touches on the problematic relationship between Ireland and England that reached a violent climax in the late 20th century. It’s a lovely allusion, though it does rather depend on one’s knowledge of modern British history in order to appreciate the connections between the story itself and the broader cultural implications for those involved in it. The non-linear nature of the narrative does mitigate this dependence on external knowledge, though it does take away from the story itself.
Let me explain: Finishing the Suit has a rather existential premise, in that the three characters are in a small space that none of them seem able to leave, à la Sartre’s No Exit. Unlike No Exit, however, these characters all have connections to each other (albeit an indirect connection between the Duke and Jimmy) from before their time in the confined space. Due to this choice of convention, the story has already happened before the start of the play, and the characters talk about the story rather than enact it – mostly.
Though we are occasionally treated to re-enactments of moments between the characters in life – the first meeting between the tailor and the Duke, for example – the bulk of Suit is the imaginary meeting in the tailor’s mind. The tailor already knows what happened, so it’s up to the audience to piece the story together through fragmentary references in the conversation. For the most part, this sophisticated dramaturgy is consistent: the fragmented, non-linear narrative works very well with the basic memory-play premise. As an audience member, however, this narrative style can be frustrating at times, as the normal pattern of cause-and-effect that one typically expects in a drama is subverted – you’ve been warned.
Joël Beddows’ direction keeps the tensions and pauses in the conversation smoothly flowing from one topic to the next, as the tailor attempts to smooth over the turbulence between his projections of the Duke and Jimmy, with mixed results.
The stretches where two characters converse with one another to the exclusion of the third are nicely managed, with each character relegated to his own segment of the stage, overhearing the others but helpless to stop them.
The overall designs are minimalistic, pared down to the bare essentials, yet they correspond with the premise and themes wonderfully. Ivo Valentik’s set, consisting of ribbons of dark fabric, hangs down from the lighting-grid, car-wash curtain-style, filling the space with “walls” that part at the slightest touch. These ‘walls’ are organized in a surprisingly elaborate manner, creating cathedral-like vaults that may remind one of a church or synagogue, or even the medieval-inspired set design for the original production of the Broadway musical Camelot (all three are relevant, though the third has a direct connection to the storyline).
Al Connors’ sound design is similarly minimalist, the notable aspect being the West Side Story-ish whistling that the tailor hears, announcing the arrival and departure of Jimmy and the Duke in his mind. Angela Haché’s costume designs similarly evokes West Side Story in Jimmy’s appearance (not at all irrelevant for a singing, dancing boy from a poor family who’s had to rely on street smarts). The tailor and the Duke are more stereotypically dressed, but the most important aspect (to my mind, at least) is that everyone’s costume fits just about perfectly: remember, we’re not seeing the characters as they really were, we’re seeing them as the tailor imagines them.
The actors’ performances are generally strong, with the highlight being the energy between Matt Pilipiak and Isaac Giles as the tailor and Jimmy, respectively. The two exchange several stage kisses that always seem to organically arise from the tensions in their conversation, and their facial expressions when they look at each other never feel forced. David Whiteley brings a sort of lazy imperiousness to the Duke, which seems entirely in keeping with the kindly yet privileged persona that Aronovitch assigns to his interpretation of the historical figure (and somewhat kinder than the portrayals of the Duke of Windsor in other media, notably The King’s Speech and The Crown).
The avant-garde nature of the dramaturgy demands a more active listening experience on the part of the spectator, but if my only real criticism is that the production challenges the audience to pay attention, then we’re in a good place. It’s also heartening to see new work that touches on emotionally raw aspects of gay life rather than the omnipresent (and cliché) issue of social acceptance. These aspects include loving and respecting the parent who doesn’t understand you, the impossible dream of having a child (though this is increasingly becoming a non-issue today, it was very much the reality of the time), frustration with religion, unrequited love for straight men, and the exhilaration of finally meeting someone who loves you back. That these aspects of gay life are explored in a piece that engages in topics beyond the stereotypical “queer theatre” themes is heartening, and a sign that even Ottawa, with its limited amount of LGBT programming, is a place for meaningful, intelligent, and insightful theatre queer- theatre that you don’t have to be gay to get.
Finishing the Suit
Written by Lawrence Aronovitch
Directed by Joël Beddows
Produced by Eleanor Crowder and Rachel Eugster
Stage Managed by Lauriane Lehouillier
Assistant Stage Manager: May Abu-Shaban
Set Design by Ivo Valentik
Costume Design by Angela Haché
Lighting Design by David Magladry
Sound Design by AL Connors
Performers (in order of appearance): Matt Pilipiak, Isaac Giles, David Whiteley