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Men Behind Bars!

by Drew Rowsome
Photos by Guntar Kravis


Fortune and Men's Eyes runs 'til Sun, Sept 8 at Dancemakers & the Centre for Creation, 9 Trinity St. birdlandtheatre.com

After six seasons of brutal explicit homoeroticism and violence on Oz, Fortune and Men's Eyes - a shocking piece of theatre when it debuted in 1967 - is a risky proposition to put on stage. Very cleverly Birdland Theatre opts, in their current production, to take their cue from the Shakespearean antecedents in the title and emphasize the poetry of John Herbert's words and create a stylized stunner that aims for the heart and brain as well as the gut. The horror and themes are still intact but they take flight on the power of words, turning prison slang into passionate arias. Not a bad idea for a play that posits the power of the written word as salvation and a chance at redemption.

John Herbert was a local hero - the typewriter he used to write Fortune and Men's Eyes and much of his drag paraphernalia resides in the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives at 34 Isabella St - and a revisit of his seminal work is a crucial part of our gay history. After all it has worked before: Sal Mineo revived his career with a 1971 theatrical production that also starred nascent sex symbol Don Johnson. This production simmers with homoeroticism, and the cast is uniformly as sexually alluring as Johnson in his prime, but has broader implications in mind. The powderkeg of scrabbling for power contained within a prison cell echoes the world at large and comments on the business world, the theatre scene, sexual jockeying and politics in general without having to make an explicit statement.

David Coomber, who stunned in RED at Canstage, travels the most dramatic distance and handles it ably and subtly. The audience aches for his Mona, while understanding completely why he is the most popular sexual prison yard prize, and feels his pain when it erupts. Queenie is the role that could most easily slide into caricature but Alex Fiddes manages to stylize and sexualize without stereotyping and is a truly terrifying queen. Cyrus Faird is a butch little dynamo who is a sly seductive strutter making his inevitable destruction heartbreaking yet also emotionally satisfying. The main plotline is the transformation of Smitty and Julian De Zotti arcs from neophyte to jaded villain deftly, rendering his final lines truly chilling.

Stylizing and poetry do have their risks - Fortune and Men's Eyes was originally conceived as a realistic cri de coeur - but in this case it pays off. Attitudes towards homosexuality, even typing that word instead of gay seems dated, have changed immensely over the years and situational gayness can seem almost as quaint as gay for pay, but it still exists and still needs to be examined. A non-naturalistic set does mean that the plot muddies and words are lost in the cavernous space but, when the relentless pacing reaches its climax, it is chilling and - four decades later - the ending implicates us all and still shocks.

Fortune and Men's Eyes runs 'til Sun, Sept 8 at Dancemakers & the Centre for Creation, 9 Trinity St. birdlandtheatre.com

 

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