Lately, going to Buddies in Bad Times has been like going to school. A very cool school. Last season gave us Of a Monstrous Child, Alistair Newton’s mad musical essay on Lady Gaga’s precursors and influences, and before that we had Studio 180’s revelatory revival of the AIDS docu-drama The Normal Heart. Now Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn and Andrew Kushnir have teamed up to teach us a lively lesson in LGBT history with The Gay Heritage Project.
However, “teach” may not be the right word. There’s nothing pedantic or presumptuous in this funny, imaginative, thought-provoking and frequently personal show. The three queer actor-creators have used their own youthful search for identity as the thrust to drive a wide-ranging and wildly entertaining inquiry into what it means to be gay.
The personal note is sounded from the get-go, when the irrepressible Atkins enters playing his preteen self, whirling exuberantly around his family’s living room as he mimics Olympic figure skater Brian Orser – an early glimmer of his sexual orientation. Later, Kushnir recounts his determined efforts to discover his queer ethnic heritage, despite his mother’s insistence that “there’s no such thing as a gay Ukrainian.”
Dunn, meanwhile, becomes intensely aware of historical persecution after he reads about gay men being worked to death in the Nazi concentration camps. (One wonders if Dunn has ever come across Martin Sherman’s play Bent, which is about that very subject.)
All three wrestle with some complex issues, by way of turning them into clever skits. Tackling the theory that homosexuality is a social construct, Atkins offers a hilarious riff on The Wizard of Oz, with philosopher Michel Foucault as the illusion-puncturing “man behind the curtain.” For the argument that the gay community has embraced straight values in its fight for rights, Kushnir imagines a witty back-alley confrontation between respectable Gay Identity and disreputable Gay Desire. (For backup, Desire has brought along his seedy sisters: Drag, Camp and Joan Crawford.)
The gay influence on pop music is succinctly summarized when Kushnir leads a big a cappella medley that touches on everything from Cole Porter to Cabaret and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. This country’s queer heroes are touted in a series of gung-ho ads for gay Canadian action figures. There are darker moments, too. Atkins sings a thoughtful ballad about contemporary victims of homophobia, while Dunn uses the rise of Christian-driven intolerance in ancient Rome to warn us that, pace Dan Savage, sometimes “It Gets Worse.”
The three men share equal time on stage, but Atkins is the indisputable star. The rangy actor with the retroussé nose, fresh from his triumph as Prior Walter in Soulpepper Theatre’s Angels in America, shows off a marvellous facility with accents and comic characterizations. My favourite is a dazzling bit in which he rattles off phrases in Polari, the classic British queer-speak. He also indulges his deliciously bitchy side with a rant about being typecast as a gay actor; then he counters it with a moving reflection on how the AIDS plague affected a younger generation of theatre artists.
Kushnir has an energy as unruly as his curly black hair. A boyish Dunn is the more subdued and serious member of the trio, but he comes into his own late in the show with an episode involving sprightly Irish musicians.
Ashlie Corcoran directs at a cracking pace and gives the guys a wide playing field. Kimberly Purtell’s set consists of just 10 rod-backed chairs on a bare stage enhanced by her usual adroit lighting.
The Gay Heritage Project has a few flaws, including an ambitious attempt to cram as much as possible into 90-plus minutes. Some students may wish that professors Atkins, Dunn and Kushnir would slow down occasionally and spend more time in certain areas. The piece could also use a stronger summing-up. Nonetheless, this is another Buddies lecture you won’t want to skip.