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theatre review

Watching Tim Luscombe's PIG, you'll be simultaneously riveted and revolted. Riveting are the brave, intense performances of its three actors, in particular that by a protean Bruce Dow. What will make sensitive theatregoers queasy is the subject matter: the extreme fringes of sadomasochistic gay sex.

Luscombe's play, receiving its world premiere from Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, is like 50 Shades of Grim. There are scenes involving belts, knives, bludgeons and car batteries. Those unfamiliar with sadistic techniques will discover a nasty new use for cling wrap.

This is not porn, however. Luscombe, a U.K. playwright who specializes in adapting Jane Austen novels, has a serious purpose. PIG is a would-be provocative work about destructive relationships based on erotic fantasy, with added reflections on gay marriage, addiction, artistic envy, domestic abuse and the fetishizing of HIV/AIDS.

It also flaunts an art-imitating-life theme and a complex, at times confusing structure. It's a play about role-playing that grows increasingly tangled, with the actors each portraying four characters who at times are intentionally indistinguishable from one another. Only, in the end, all its clever convolutions don't really add up to much.

That hasn't stopped Buddies in Bad Times artistic director Brendan Healy from giving it another of his razor-sharp productions. Or Dow from building on the freaky-but-poignant brilliance of his previous Buddies appearance, as avant-garde style icon Leigh Bowery in last May's Of a Monstrous Child.

In that show, the portly Dow delivered a heart-wrenching monologue while posing stark naked. Here, he not only strips down, he also simulates masturbation and at one point plays a sex client with mild cerebral palsy. Yet, once again, his performance is filled with wit and pathos. He's especially effective as Harry, a washed-up, nearly blind novelist whose reluctant toast to the happy couple at a gay wedding turns into a bitterly funny rant against homosexuals acting like "breeders."

The not-so-happy couple are Joe (Paul Dunn), a young fellow novelist, and Stevie (Blair Williams), a late-blooming playwright. The two met eight years previously on the Gaydar website, but their love affair degenerated into drug addiction and prostitution before they split up. Reunited in recovery, they've decided to commit to a legal union. Soon, however, artistic competitiveness and Stevie's roving eye threaten to destroy their marriage.

Luscombe anticipates obvious comparisons to the tragic tale of playwright Joe Orton and his mentor Kenneth Halliwell by referencing it early on. And like that relationship, we know this one won't end well.

Their story alternates with those of their fictional alter egos, as they appear in both Stevie's play and Joe's novel, as well as with the lives of "rent boys" Knife (Williams) and Pig (Dunn) – who indeed may be Stevie and Joe back in their whoring days. Confused yet?

Luscombe deliberately blurs the lines between fact and fiction to emphasize the S&M fantasy on which Joe's and Stevie's love is founded. Along with sad Harry, Joe's former lover, Dow is also Barry, Larry and Garry, all various clients of the masochistic Pig. The most horrifying of these, loutish Larry, is a hard-core sadist who wants to progress from brutality to outright murder. In one skin-crawlingly grotesque scene, he pleasures himself while fantasizing about infecting Pig with AIDS and watching him slowly die.

Dow makes the most of his four roles, but Dunn and Williams have a tough time ringing any variations on their characters. That said, Dunn is both achingly frail and amusingly glib as the perpetual victim, while Williams is powerful as an outwardly hard man struggling to repress his latent compassion.

Healy gives the play a lean, abstract staging, for the most part suggesting rather than showing the violence. James Lavoie's set adopts a steely S&M aesthetic, with a stage that gleams like polished black leather. At one point it even mirrors Dunn's reclining Joe, making him look like young Narcissus lying by the pool of water.

At two-and-a-half hours, the play is too long, and it seems Luscombe didn't know how to end it. He also gives us too much of a vile thing. By the time it reaches a predictably nightmarish climax, PIG has had us wallowing in sexual degradation for so long that we're no longer riveted or revolted. Instead, we feel as jaded as the Marquis de Sade.