No matter how you look at it, the performances this weekend and next by the ever-adventurous Essential Collective Theatre Company are bound to raise a few eyebrows and quite possibly other limbs either in awe, shared fantasy or uncomfortable truth.
Crack! is a one-act play written by Sky Gilbert, founder of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (1978) and gay man of letters at the University of Guelph. The prolific writer of prose, plays, poems and social commentaries (his wry observations and astute insights are dressed up in a wit that knows no bounds and topics that take no prisoners) will also direct this gritty tale of addiction, lust and aging.
Real-life partners Jason Cadieux and Stephanie Jones (he creates a singular “Man” while her “Woman” has a trio of personas) are particularly drawn to this work due to their long association with Gilbert. Cadieux had a smallish role in, More Divine, a 1994 Buddies’ production. Always anxious to dig deeper than the publicity releases, Pulse took a crack at interviewing Gilbert in the Sullivan Mahoney Theatre, just moments after the Hamilton resident stepped across the street from the bus terminal.
“Despite having only a few lines, Jason was my favourite of the three actors in More Divine. There was just something about him, much more than the pretty-boy look that stood him so well in television and film [notably as Young Simon in John Greyson’s Lilies]. A couple of years later, because he played the bisexual and tortured character in Play Murder so brilliantly, I decided to write something just for him. I wanted to give him a bit more of an adult part—it’s so easy to be stereotyped. By then I knew Stephanie but not her work—I write for [specific] actors all the time, but not for couples; it was a bit of a risk. But as soon as we began rehearsing for the Hamilton production [at the 2007 Hamilton Fringe Festival], I thought ‘Wow! she’s fabulous,” he said.
Gilbert abandoned the ever-pricier, increasingly gentrified downtown core of Toronto and moved to Hamilton a few years ago where the real estate is more reasonable and the neighbourhoods more to his liking. He has consciously written about his new environment in the play, working some of his actual observations about the horrors of crack cocaine into the narrative. “The scene with the [9-year-old] kid on the roof—that was me [“The kid is yelling and crying, it’s really pitiful.”]. Looking out my window, I could see he’d been locked out, so I dashed down to the street—just in my underwear—and speaking briefly with a passerby […“he’s this black guy, I don’t know why I mention he’s black, he just was.”], watched him run into the house. Seconds later, a crack-addled woman unlocked the window and let the boy back in the house,” he recalled. The ravages of addictions and subtle character development permeate much of the writing.
While that was a Hamilton incident, the abuse of crack is not unknown to St. Catharines. “I hadn’t been in town for more than five minutes when I overheard a conversation that goes right to my point: ‘The booze is fine, but ya don’t want to be doing the other stuff.’ People don’t talk about ‘the other stuff’ enough—it’s not that coke parties don’t happen, but they aren’t really acknowledged,” he continued.
That problem will certainly be remedied during the play’s one-hour runtime.
But being a Gilbert creation, the plight, joy and sensitivities of the queer community also come into play. As Man will point out, for most people, crack of the nasty sort is the immediate if also under-discussed word association with “gay.” Once that subject is, er, raised, the discourse moves into high gear. The merits of man-to-man blowjobs are weighed against the more stereotypical rear-entry expression of love/lust. The possibility that many heterosexual men will have more back door visitors than fully fledged homos is hilariously set-up, but may cause a few to squirm uncomfortably in their seats. Suddenly, their understanding on the subtext of Brokeback Mountain might nervously crack apart.
Recently, Gilbert’s column in the Globe and Mail (“If that’s what it means to be gay, I quit,” December 1) became an instant scandale within Canada’s Queer Nation. “Gay is everywhere and, paradoxically, gay is also over,” wrote the provocateur. Letters to the editor soon kept the discussion going, and that’s a good thing: as an artist, it’s Gilbert’s duty to stir the pot of debate and if it takes the odd outrageous statement or action to light the fire then so be it.
“Is Niagara ready for Sky Gilbert?” teases the production’s media release. Will our queer community come out in force? Will that possibility leave everyone else cowering at home watching the gay-less NHL? Will attending a performance be worn like a badge of honour? Or will ECT’s courage, vision and talent combine again for an extraordinary night of theatre.
“It’s great to finally bring him to where we’ve invested our lives,” offered Cadieux just prior to rehearsal. “And Crack! is so different stylistically—unlike anything we’ve ever done before. Over the years, we’ve developed a director/performer trust, which has allowed me to take risks and play extremely varied roles—it’s really an actor’s dream.”
Jones was equally enthusiastic about her assignment of creating three distinct women. Gilbert’s help with her own play (She’s Mine—a highlight from last season) was very much appreciated. Separately, both said that one of the biggest attractions in working with the crack writer is his sense of humour: “He’s always so much fun; the material is so funny.”
Somewhat unusually, Crack!’s second weekend run will shift venue to 4triple5 Café and Wine Bar, part of Niagara Falls’ newly “artified” Queen Street. Given that the play’s action is set in a seedy bar where patrons are just as likely to slip outside for a crack break as a smoke, performing it in a part of town that knew/knows its share of troubled addicts is a brilliant stroke of staging. Where better to have the conversation? Three cheers to all of those involved!
With a new volume of poetry just published (A Nice Place to Visit, ECW Press), a PhD dissertation (Wilfrid Laurier University: Noël Coward and the Queer Feminine) eagerly anticipated and serving as artistic director of Hammertheatre in Hamilton, Gilbert shows no signs of resting on his laurels or slipping into formula output. Here’s to the next great tome of social outrage and observations steeped invitingly in his leaves of laughs.
Oh, yes: we’re most certainly ready for Sky Gilbert, better get cracking to the show! JWR