Artifice lies at the very heart of theatre but that doesn’t stop artists from multifarious attempts to unseat it. Toronto theatre director Darren O’Donnell is not the first to rely solely on documentary interviews for a script nor to cast civilians as themselves on stage but just the title of All the Sex I’ve Ever Had will tell you why this show is rather novel. It’s the pensioners’ version of The Vagina Monologues, assembling a group of over-65s to talk about their sex lives.
First mounted in 2012 by O’Donnell’s Mammalian Diving Reflex company, the show lines up seven lively seniors at a long conference table and takes them through their sexual and romantic history year by year. Originally premiered in Germany, All the Sex I’ve Ever Had has also been performed by local casts in the Czech Republic, Switzerland, the U.S., the U.K. and Singapore. Now, Mammalian Diving Reflex brings it home to Toronto for Luminato with a multilingual edition featuring one participant from each of those countries as well as one Canadian who was involved in the original development. The results are puzzlingly cheerless, a mixed bag of sorrow and humour, gripping moments and botched lines, as we hop from a violent marriage in Germany to a prison romance in Canada to gay pickups in the U.S.
Prodded by moderator Christian Ziegler, the cast members simply take turns reading their parts from a prepared script as the decades roll by. They were all born in the late 1930s and the 1940s and we follow them from childhood memories of playing doctor or telling mother about the secret fondling of an old man to first loves, broken hearts and bad marriages. (At the start of the show, the audience takes a pledge not to repeat the stories outside the theatre, so I will not identify which of the performers, who are billed by their first names only, told which tale.)
Their stories are sometimes funny, sometimes confusing and sometimes shocking – several of the women describe non-consensual sex in marriage; one describes a brutal rape; another has never had an orgasm – but mainly, on reflection, they are very sad. The participants are cheerful extroverts who have looked gamely for love all life long, but only one of the seven seems to be in a satisfying relationship. (The participants are given very short spaces in which to relay their life stories; the exact details are often muddy.)
In one of the more heartbreaking moments, a gay man who sacrificed seven years of his young adulthood looking after a younger brother now wishes someone would care for him the way he had cared for his sibling. The show is a reminder to spectators of all ages not only that the elderly were young once but also that there is no such thing as happily ever after.
Perhaps it’s the awkward international version of this project that takes what seems intended as a joyous celebration of life, sex and age and turns it into a downer. Divided among four languages (Mandarin, English, German and Czech), the cast members are limited in how much tabletop banter they can ad lib and Thursday’s opening felt painfully underrehearsed. Toronto spectators forced to read surtitles half the time seemed disinclined to fully enter into the spirit of the event. About 70 of us put up our hands when asked if we had ever had sex in public; a mere seven confessed that a lover once stole something from us, and by the time less than five volunteered they or someone they were close to had known sexual violence, I suspected we were just holding back. The purpose of All the Sex I’ve Ever Had is an artifice-busting honesty but when a roomful of adults barely acknowledges sexual assault or a gay man describes decades of cruising without ever mentioning AIDS, you have to wonder whether it is achieving its goal.
All the Sex I’ve Ever Had continues through Sunday at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto. See luminatofestival.com for details.