MY FELLOW CREATURES Written and directed by Michael Rubenfeld, with Terrence Bryant, Benjamin Clost and Richard Zeppieri. Presented by Absit Omen in association with Buddies in Bad Times at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson). Previews tonight (Thursday, May 15), opens Friday (May 16) and runs to June 1, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $15-$25, Sunday Pwyc-$15. 416-504-7529. Rating: NNNNN
Pedophilia is one of those taboos that no one wants to talk about.
But that didn’t stop Terrence Bryant from jumping at the chance to play Arthur, an unrepentant incarcerated pedophile who meets Kelly, another child-lover, in Michael Rubenfeld’s My Fellow Creatures.
“Michael read this article about two men, both charged with pederasty, imprisoned in the same cell,” recalls Bryant of the first meeting he and Buddies’ David Oiye had with Rubenfeld nearly four years ago. “He started thinking about what might happen in prison.
“When I said I was interested in being part of the project, Michael wrote with my voice in mind.”
Good choice. An underused actor here in Toronto, Bryant brings warmth and humanity to irascible, difficult-to-deal-with characters like the secretive father in Simply Told.
Over the years, Rubenfeld has pared down My Fellow Creatures, cutting lengthy speeches in which Arthur tried to prove his love for children.
Significantly, the playwright has also redirected the focus from the sexual to the emotional dimension of Arthur and Kelly’s relationship.
Now the play is a look at three men living in the same environment – the third is John, a guard in a shaky marriage – and trying to deal with one another.
It becomes, in fact, a conflicted love story.
“That lessens the ick factor of the play,” adds Bryant, naming the elephant in the room.
“But it’s no less difficult a piece to work on today than when I came on board two years ago,” continues Benjamin Clost, who plays the younger Kelly. “If anything, it’s harder, because we’re inside it every day.”
The point for the actors is to connect imaginatively with their characters without judging them. That would be true if they were playing Richard III or Hitler, too.
“It’s not an actor’s job to bring politics into a play – it’s the audience’s job,” says Bryant. “At some level, we have to love and respect the people we play, or the audience won’t understand or buy them. Our function as actors is to give these men a kind of dignity and let the audience decide how they feel about them.”
Just as importantly, both performers emphasize the necessity of society’s talking about pedophilia.
“We discuss rape, murder and other crimes, but we always kick this topic under the carpet,” offers Clost, whose recent work includes Mozart in Amadeus and Curley in Of Mice And Men.Though jailed for the same offence, Arthur and Kelly see their actions in radically different lights. Arthur has enshrined his one experience with a young boy, a relationship he’s never been able to replicate.
“He’s made a faith of his love,” says Bryant, who spent several seasons at the Shaw Festival. “Arthur believes strongly that man-child love is a right, and that he was both loving and loved back.”
Kelly, on the other hand, is troubled by his feelings and actions.
“He understands that he loves children but fundamentally doesn’t agree with that love,” says Clost. “It’s an odd thing to live with – knowing that what you do is wrong but not being able to stop doing it. Kelly’s a sad, unfortunate figure, with little beauty or hope in his life.”
A trained psychiatrist, Arthur has the tools to manipulate Kelly and the maritally troubled John.
Bryant has played a button-pushing psychiatrist before, in The Kabbalistic Psychoanalysis Of Adam R. Tzaddik. But his research on psychiatry for that earlier role isn’t the only experience Bryant brings to the play.
“When we discuss the play outside of rehearsal, I keep coming back to my 60s and 70s gay politics, when many people had to be convinced that gay sex was about love, not who you screwed.
“Some of those arguments parallel Arthur’s, and they resonate for me in strange ways. Back then I was defending my own rights, and now, as an actor, I’m defending this other person’s. The only way I can do that is to love him and agree with him in the moment.”