Mixing The Bad Seed and Sleuth with The Kids Are All Right and adding a dash of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? plus a soupcon of Stuart Little,would create a chilling dish that would somewhat resemble the full flavours served up in Donors. safeword theatre is dedicated to creating "controversial work with social relevancy" but the big clue to unravelling Donors lies in the company's moniker: playwright and director Brandon Crone drops the audience into a sexually-charged uncomfortable situation, makes the laughs choke in their throats, and suddenly they discover that there is no safe word.
Any gay man, any man, considering donating sperm should NOT see Donors. Everyone else should jump on the thrill ride and get ready for discussions to follow, the ideas and characters linger. A gay man - played by Thomas Gough who, as he did in Bent, manages to be charming and chilling, often in the same breath - donates sperm for what initially appears to be altruistic reasons. Very quickly the cat and mouse games, and yes that metaphor is deliberate, are afoot and no-one is as sympathetic, or evil, as they appear. Spoilers would ruin the fun but even the pivotal moments, the shocks, that were telegraphed in advance are turned on their heads. The audience is constantly on edge, balancing between laughter and squirming.
The space at Hub14 is extremely intimate and the actors, under intense close scrutiny, make it work in their favour. Jakob Ehman handles his dual roles so well that at one point I expected the two to interact even though it would be physically impossible, even for an Irma Vep-era Charles Ludlam. The sullen son is a comic delight that is an utterly realistic portrait of a culturally-numbed teenager, and the hustler son is menacing and erotically charged. Ehman handles speeches that are perhaps a bit too literate and flowery for a street hustler, with believability, and the physical transformations keep the characters distinct while emphasizing the genetic connection.
Both Ehman and Gough dive right into the disturbing dynamics of where a father/son relationship intersects with Daddy/son sexual play. Gough's big speech on which the plot hinges is framed as a "story" - the character is a writer and apparently that occupation makes his sperm more coveted. Who knew? - and it is a stunner that he dives into with relish. Horror, comedy and sex are stirred into a mesmerizing tour de force with a camp and hilarious punch line. The next time one uses a cum rag to clean up, one will remember this speech.
Karen Slater has less to do but her entr'acte interludes push the story along and add an intriguing layer to the denouement with all its enticing ambiguity. The advantage of a small theatrical space is that the set design, very clever work by Claire Hill, can be enveloping and become another character. The disadvantage is that more dramatic lighting would have enhanced Donors immensely - exact black outs would have ratcheted the tension and relieved the staging difficulties. However the trade off works to Donors advantage and the audience settles into the familiar but heightened world and surrenders to the ride.
Donors continues until Sun, Nov 17 at Hub 14, 14 Markham St. safeword.ca