PLAY MURDER written and directed by Sky Gilbert, with Jason Cadieux, Marc Gushuliak, Ann Holloway, Jane Johanson, Ellen Ray Hennessy and Edward Roy. Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander). Opens tonight (Thursday, September 25) and runs to October 12, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $10-$25, Sunday pwyc. 416-975-8555. Rating: NNNNN
This year, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre adds silver to the traditional colours of the rainbow flag. It's Buddies' 25th anniversary, and the season is devoted to retrospective works as well as the development and support of new plays and playwrights, something Buddies has done since its beginning.
It's now the largest professional, facility-based gay and lesbian theatre in North America (though lesbian playwrights were pretty scarce until the late 80s) and entertains audiences far beyond queer Church Street.
The company couldn't open its season with a better work than a revival of Play Murder, one of the strongest scripts and productions by playwright/actor/director Sky Gilbert, Buddies' founder and long-term artistic director.
Set in 30s North Carolina, it explores the relationship between Broadway performer Libby Holman and her husband, tobacco heir Smith Reynolds. But Holman has a female lover and Reynolds a schoolboy chum with whom he may do more than turkey shooting.
Setting the scene and acting as narrators of sorts are Blanche, Libby's acting teacher, and Slick, the detective investigating Reynolds's mysterious death. They're played by Ann Holloway and Edward Roy, returning actors from the 1993 premiere and long-time associates of Buddies and Gilbert.
"The show moves back and forth in time, between illusion and reality, and our characters provide the two poles of the play," offers Holloway, a strong performer and writer who, like Gilbert, is working toward her PhD at U of T.
"Blanche is about art and illusion, while Slick looks at survival and reality. Like the other four actors, we sometimes step outside our roles and clearly become performers playing parts."
"It's been a challenge to return to this work," adds director/writer/actor Roy, who has his own company, Topological Theatre. "We all have to act and also dance, in the dozen or so musical numbers that break the boundaries of the play. They're mostly pastiches of jazz, ballet and modern dance, comic devices that slice through the story and diffuse the tension."
Over a sushi lunch, both Roy and Holloway credit director Gilbert with giving them a lot of scope in this return visit to their parts.
"I rarely have a chance to do comedy," admits Holloway, a straight woman with a queer sensibility who's worked with Buddies since 1987. "But here I can be as broad, arch, high and crazy as I please."
After her local debut in Tarragon's Lion In The Streets, Holloway found herself "an enfant terrible who wanted to be part of the dramatic process. Buddies allowed me that opportunity as writer and performer, especially in examining reality-based images of women characters and exploding female stereotypes, particularly around body image and sexuality."
No surprise, then, that her thesis is on the comedy of resistance in Canadian women's drama. Audiences get to see her as comic writer and performer next month at Buddies in the joint Nightwood/Buddies Hysteria Festival.
It's taken a work like Play Murder to revive Roy's interest in performing, which he hasn't done for six years. He first got involved with Buddies in 1984 during a Rhubarb Festival.
Why the draw to the company?
"Buddies let me be gay," he says simply. "My choice early on was whether or not to come out in my acting work. People told me that if I did that or worked at Buddies, I'd never work anywhere else.
"That's nonsense, of course. Better still, the Buddies' philosophy didn't pigeonhole me as an actor but encouraged me to explore and experiment to develop my tools as an artist, tools I've taken around the world.
"The company uses what we've come to think of as the European paradigm, letting theatre artists and the theatre itself develop into what each can be."
And Buddies affects viewers in a similar open-ended fashion. Though not every show's successful, the company aims at celebrating difference, both in lifestyle and in theatre.
"When they step into Buddies," nods Roy, "audiences will always be pushed beyond their expectations of what theatre and life are about. "
Not in the hair, but on the stage. Here are some terrific premieres at Buddies during the past quarter-century. Not in the hair, but on the stage. Here are some terrific premieres at Buddies during the past quarter-century.
1979 RHUBARB The first Rhubarb set the trend for annual fests of works by queer-sensibility artists, both gay and straight, and launched dozens of scripts and careers.
1987 STEEL KISS A co-production with Platform 9 offered Robin Fulford 's seminal play of the 80s, based on a true incident, about the societal conditions that breed homophobia in straight guys.
1989 WHERE IS KABUKI? 4-Play , another Buddies festival, introduced Don Druick 's highly theatrical piece set in historic Japan, in which two sides war over whether box office success or art determines what's good theatre. Sound familiar?
1991 SUZIE GOO: PRIVATE SECRETARY In part because of the late Ken McDougall 's comic yet heartfelt performance in the title role, Sky Gilbert 's take on early feminism, drag and 60s office politics was uproarious theatre and a Dora winner.
1991 MY NIGHT WITH TENNESSEE Tenderness isn't a word you usually associate with a Sky Gilbert script, but this sensitive play explored Tennessee Williams's touching, brief relationship with an underwear-clad young man who read him poetry.
1994 DYKE CITY Sonja Mills began her little comedy about out-there lezzies and their sometimes uncertain partners as part of 4-Play, little knowing that it would spin into nine sequels and a film.
1996 BATHORY Moynan King 's dark comedy about a 17th-century Hungarian countess obsessed with the power of virgins' blood juggled lesbianism, gothic horror and feminism in a fascinating mix.