Jay Whitehead (seated). Photo Credit – Jaime Vedres.
October 29 – November 2, 2013
MOTEL in the EPCOR CENTRE
Listen to my live review from CBC Eyeopener at http://www.cbc.ca/eyeopener/columnists/theatre/2013/10/30/jessica-goldman-unsexd/
Well, I now know what a catamite is. The gist of the word was made fairly clear to me when Wilburn Hussey and Humphrey Hughes, two boy players in Shakespeare’s company, talk about a nobleman with specific sexual proclivities to whom they are to become catamite to. But I confess it wasn’t until I got home and looked the word up that I fully understood the meaning. To save you the trouble, should you be as unaware as I was, a catamite is a passive partner (usually a boy) engaged in anal intercourse with another man (usually an adult). As a language junkie, I was pleased as punch to add a new word to my lexicon thanks to Unsex’d, the new two-hander raunchy comedy by Daniel Judes and Jay Whitehead. However, when learning the word catamite is one of the very few intriguing things a play has to offer, perhaps a night home with Wikipedia would have been time better spent.
Unsex’d , this year’s winner of Third Street Theatre’s New Queer Theatre Playwriting Competition and co-produced by Theatre Outré, takes place around the 16th century when women were not allowed on stage and boy-players took on the female parts in plays. As the show opens, we meet Wilburn Hussey, a not-so-young and not-so-pretty-anymore boy player in Shakespeare’s company. Wilburn has just made his debut as Juliete in Romeo and Juliette and the reviews are not kind. Not because of his acting necessarily, but because the critics viciously maintain that he’s too old and ugly for the role. The campy, overly emotional Wilburn is devastated and asks the spirits for someone to help him overcome his plight, et voilà, he meets Humphrey Hughes – a young beautiful gay bread seller who happens to love the theatre and is a fan of the older boy player’s work. Wilburn convinces Humphrey to come under his tutelage knowing that if he can teach him to act, Shakespeare will give Humphrey the pretty girl roles and save the really juicy female characters for Wilburn. All goes according to plan until Shakespeare writes Macbeth – finally giving Wilburn a strong female role to play in Lady Macbeth. Of course Wilburn is thrilled until he loses the role to; you guessed it, Humphrey who inspires the now famous “Out, damned spot” quote after spilling wine on his dress. With the roles reversed the rest of the play deals with themes of young triumphing over old, beauty winning the day and how fame changes people.
At this point let me say that there is nothing so frustrating as a good premise put to waste, and unfortunately this is the case here. Unsex’d takes what could have been a funny and insightful look into the boy player’s experience and pelts it to death with repetitive and obvious bawdy humour, tiresome camp, and a “dark” side that not only has been done to death, but done with far more panache.
Whitehead and Judes cleverly have their characters speak in pseudo Elizabethan English with many incorporated Shakespearean quotes, but the dialogue is peppered with cussing that is distinctly modern. It’s a nice touch and the cause of many laughs. The cussing turns to more R-rated language when we discover that Wilburn is Shakespeare’s gay lover. The gags at the expense of Will’s apparently small penis may be amusing the first time round, but Whitehead and Judes seem to want to beat the joke to death (no pun intended) by repeating it in some form or another throughout the play. The obvious in the bum, up the bum, let’s show the audience our bum humour that ensues at various graphic levels was supposed to be comically shocking and or titillating, but was so relentless and transparent that it was rendered boring at best and simply annoying at worst. I’m all for raunchy humour and in this case, the queerer the better in keeping with the theme of the play, but cheap humour is cheap humour no matter what sexuality you put on it. In the case of Unsex’d, these types of easy laughs might appeal to audience members amused by the sight of a gay boy learning to performing cunnilingus by chomping on a tomato, but for me it was yawn-inducing.
But I’ll take this bromidic brand of sexual humour over Wilburn’s ear drum-bursting shrieking any day. Played by Whitehead, eighty percent of Wilburn’s performance sees him in full decibel, over the top camp which gets really tired, really fast. The rest of his performance however when brought down a notch, shows Whitehead to be a far funnier comic actor and wonderfully able to deliver the one serious and poignant moment in the play. Adam Beauchesne as Humphrey seems to have the opposite issue. He’s quite lovely as the shy, gay, boy-player, but when he takes on Lady Macbeth and his fame grows, Beauchesne doesn’t show the ego transformation strongly enough to make the point. My sense is that these are two talented actors who were given some questionable direction by Director Richie Wilcox on how much gas to give their characters and when to ease off the pedal a little.
Which bring us to the claim that Unsex’d has a “dark” side to all its humour. I suppose this refers to the whole youth and beauty and fame thing that happens when Humphrey trumps Wilburn in the play and in Shakespeare’s graces. While no one can claim that the reverence we hold towards youth and beauty isn’t disturbingly skewed or that the desire for fame can make monsters out of us, simply staging these problems without examination is not dark, it’s lazy. Unsex’d brings nothing new to the youth/beauty/fame conversation and in doing so, misses the unique opportunity to discuss the issues from a gay male perspective. For a play written by gay men, produced by two queer theatre companies, this seems like the play’s biggest transgression by far.
In a discussion with a friend after the play it was suggested that there are gay characters, gay themes and then there are gay plays. Unsex’d they contended was a gay play. I interpret this as meaning that perhaps very few audience members outside the gay community would like a play like this. I completely disagree with this notion. Plays, no matter what their subject matter or point of view can be enjoyed by lovers of theatre as long as the quality is there. I have seen and enjoyed many pieces of theatre whose writers I could not personally relate to or whose subject matter was something outside of my individual experience. Unsex’d is a play with a great idea, some clever writing and a few honest laughs along the way. But regardless if you are gay or straight or somewhere in between, Unsex’d is simply not a great play. In fact, to put my own twist on the quote from both Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the characters in Unsex’d, ‘Fair is foul and foul is foul’ when it comes to the end result in this play no matter what your sexual orientation may be.
For the open-minded – Nudity, strong language, simulated anal sex….. the only caution missing here is violence. There is certainly envelope-pushing going on in this comedy. If this alone makes you giggle, then the play might be your cup of tea. If you want a smarter bite with your raunch, you will be unimpressed. MAYBE SEE IT
For the sensitive. Don’t…just don’t. SKIP IT
For the occasional theater goer – Much of the play is rather sit-comish in its style. If the hefty dollop of queer humour is good with you then this might tickle your funny bone. But be warned, there are elements of a Shakespearean story in this play in both content and language which might put you off. MAYBE SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – A good idea brought down by overeager titillation and comedy that belongs to a La Cage aux Folles era will leave you frustrated and bored. SKIP IT