Pierre Simpson stars bilingually, trisexually and in buttless chaps in The Closet
by Drew Rowsome-
In a world of gay-for-pay porn popularity, debates about the viability of gay actors as romantic leads, and straight actors being lauded for the brave choice of playing gay, Pierre Simpson managed to add another twist. In Theatre Francais' production of The Closet (Le Placard) Simpson plays a straight man masquerading as gay. "It's been an interesting challenge as an actor, to see it from a different perspective," says Simpson.
"I personally came out late at about age 24, it took me awhile. As with many young gay men there was that game of trying to hide it, or pass as straight or not talk about it all and hope for the best. So when I was finally able to embrace gay characters on stage, I found it very liberating to not have to hide anything. You can be as close as possible to being authentically yourself as you can onstage. And it was then interesting to go back to quote unquote straight characters after that. And then this play . . .
"It's seeing it from a different loophole, the character says, 'But I'm not gay' and 'Why would I pretend to be gay?' and 'I don't want to change my behaviour.' And I have to not compose or take on straight mannerisms." That is a lot of layers to keep track of but Simpson is prepared, "This is my third time reprising this character. Francis Veber always likes to always have one character in his plays or films named Francois Pignon who is either the twit in the show, the one who's not as quick as the others and means well but keeps wreaking havoc around him. The other version of Francois Pignon, as in The Closet, is the sort of everyman, who could go unnoticed on a normal day but winds up getting thrown into situations and the characters around him turn into idiots."
Simpson played the twit in The Pain in the Ass and The Dinner Game for Theatre Francais but, "This character is a little closer to me. I don't have to be as much of an idiot. I can enjoy how the other characters fall apart around him. It's a bit of a richer character, in prior shows Pignon doesn't really evolve that much from being an idiot, we just discover how much he means well. In The Closet there's a longer character arc from basically suicidal - he's separated from his wife for two years and his 15-year-old son doesn't want to speak to him any more and he lost his job at the rubber factory (rubber in both senses of the term) so his life is basically in a shambles. His neighbour stops him from jumping off the balcony and suggests that if he'd like to keep the job at the rubber factory he should pass himself off as gay. The neighbour says, 'Trust me. You don't have to do anything, you don't have to change your behaviour at all, it's how other perceive you that's going to change. In this era of political correctness your boss won't be able to fire you. And that sets the whole play in motion, how the other characters change their behaviour around him."
And The Closet is being performed in the original French (with surtitles). Crossing linguistic lines is no harder for Simpson than is projecting multiple sexualities. "My mom and her family are French, originally from Maniwaki north of Ottawa in Quebec and I went to French school all through primary and secondary, and then the bilingual theatre program at the University of Ottawa. And my father is a francophile who grew up, in an English environment in Gaspé." Simpson has as many credits in French as he does in English but when asked if he has a preference, linguistically, he laughs, "It depends on the day."
He does want to emphasize that audiences shouldn't be intimidated by potential language barriers, the challenge is more for the cast and crew. "There is a lot of rapid-fire, very witty dialogue, plays on words. Every possible synonym for 'gay' in French is in the show. The French have more, if you will, slurs for the word 'gay.' We've all worked with surtitles before and it can be hard to get the laughs to line up." Simpson explains that there are occasionally two waves of laughter, the first when those fluent in French hear the joke, and then again when others read it. But he notes that, "Anyone who has watched a foreign film will have no problem following along."
The publicity photos prominently feature some skimpy leather gear and, with most of us clearly remembering Simpson's turn as a hunky angel in a cream cheese commercial, there are high hopes for some striking visuals. "Without giving away too much . . .," teases Simpson. "The neighbour has photoshopped Pignon's head onto a friend wearing a pair of buttless chaps back in the day. That is the photo that circulates around the office and sets the rumour mill ablaze. That's what's fun about this show as well, there are a lot of gay undertones in the play, it examines how one little rumour can start and then become this large ridiculous truth as it gets shared around the coffee pot. However, at the risk of disappointing the people, while I did do the photo shoot to avoid the work of photoshopping" Simpson's derriere doesn't make a live appearance. But, as an impetus to book tickets early, the photo is flashed many times so Simpson warns , "It will only be the first few rows who will get a good look at that."
The Closet runs Wed, May 11 to Sun, May 29 at The Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley St. The surtitled version are on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. theatrefrancais.com