- Legislating Love: The Everett Klippert Story
- Written by Natalie Meisner
- Directed by Jason Mehmel
- Starring Kathy Zaborsky and Jenn Forgie
- West Village Theatre, Calgary
Everett Klippert was the kind of bus driver who could tell passengers’ life stories from the way they sat in the back of the No. 1 bus he drove every day, across the breadth of Calgary, in the late 1950s.
“You can tell which man is going home to a hot cooked meal, and who’s going home to a cold plate in a one-room apartment,” he says, ruminating from his jail cell in Legislating Love, The Everett Klippert Story, which had its premiere Thursday night at the West Village Theatre in Calgary.
The story will be well known to Globe and Mail readers thanks to a series of features by John Ibbitson about Klippert, who was the last man tried, convicted and jailed in Canada for homosexuality before Pierre Trudeau decriminalized it in 1969. In defense of the changed law, the then-Prime Minister delivered one of his better sound bites to the press: “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”
Calgary playwright Natalie Meisner chooses a framing device to tell Klippert’s story, shifting back and forth in time and seeing it through the eyes and ears of Maxine, an under-employed lesbian academic (Kathy Zaborsky). She’s writing a career-make-or-break paper about the Klippert case and Calgary’s gay history, while simultaneously falling for a Métis stand-up comedian named Tonya (Jenn Forgie), who in turn incorporates their relationship into her comedy routine, much to Maxine’s horror.
“But academics are so easy to pick on,” the comic says. “So are white people. And so are lesbians. And you’re the whole package!”
The teacher’s primary source of information about Calgary’s gay history and Klippert’s role in it is an elderly man named Handsome (Mark Bellamy), a construction tycoon who, as a young man, was Klippert’s lover.
Early on, Bellamy gives Legislating Love much of its mojo, as he travels between the 21st century and the late 1950s and early 1960s, times when hearing Klippert speak the word ‘homosexual’ filled him with existential terror.
“Never say that word!” Handsome says. “It’s the naming of things that makes them seem dirty.”
“Isn’t that funny?” Klippert responds. “I thought naming them made them seem more handsome.”
At first, Legislating Love seems tilted too far in the direction of the contemporary plot line – and sensibility – to capture the genuine experience of what LGBQT people endured five decades ago.
The 21st-century women are irreverent, witty, good company – even if Maxine is still hiding her sexuality from her father.
Deeper into Legislating Love, the present-time story fades and the focus comes squarely around to Klippert. Back in 1959, he and Handsome hung out at a Chicken on the Way restaurant, or in deserted construction sites at night, places where, as Handsome says, “we made love on the bags of cement they used to build the Husky Tower.”
Klippert was sent to prison in part because he wouldn’t reveal the names of other members of Calgary’s gay community to the police.
Following his release from jail, he migrated to the Northwest Territories, where he was framed for an arson and sent back to prison for a second stint.
Under the thoughtful direction of Jason Mehmel – who is also the artistic director of Sage Theatre, the Calgary indie company that produced Meisner’s script – Matt McKinney, as Klippert, delivers a finely modulated performance that’s patient, understated and feels genuine.
Zaborsky transcends her character’s unerring political correctness – and tendency to whine – to find the human heart under all that academic (and political) jargon.
Forgie’s Metis comic isn’t interested in Calgary’s gay history. She’s too busy living its gay present, and her determination to shake her girlfriend out of her perpetual angst gives a real jolt of comic and emotional energy to the play.
Another shot of theatrical adrenalin is delivered by Bellamy, one of Calgary’s most dynamic actors. He connects the two eras and two sets of hearts with verve, humour and moxie.
At one point, Handsome belittles the academic, who’s in a funk about a betrayal by Tonya, and reminds Maxine what his generation went through so she could love whoever she likes in the 21st century, without fear of incarceration.
It’s a poignant reminder of a generation of gay men and women whose history has always run the risk of being forgotten, simply because they didn’t leave behind any paperwork for an ambitious academic to turn into a tenure-track job.
Thanks to the creators of Legislating Love, there is some now – and it’s been transformed into a thoughtful, moving, new brand of alternative Canadian historical drama.
Legislating Love runs through March 31 at West Village Theatre in Calgary (sagetheatre.com)