When theatrical genius Charles Ludlam died in 1987, just as he was on the brink of dragging his very gay camp brilliance into the mainstream, one of his obituaries turned into an essay that has always stuck with me. The author, and I wish I could remember who it was so that I could credit properly, lamented that the horror of AIDS, beyond all the death and suffering, was that culture, the arts, have also been slaughtered. We will never know what Keith Haring might have painted next, what Robert Mapplethorpe would have captured, what Bruce Chatwin would have written. Theatre was particularly hard hit. What would Ludlam have created next? What Michael Bennett masterpiece will never grace the stage? Imagine if Liberace had been able to collaborate with Cirque du Soleil in Vegas. And what of all the artists toiling in obscurity and dying before their chance to explode into our consciousness?
The author painted a bleak scenario: without the energy and exploratory risk taking of that gay generation, most of whom died, theatre was doomed. Theatre wasn't doomed but it did suffer from the decimation and the wonderful work we will never see is an incalculable tragedy. Fortunately gay energy can't be slain and a new generation has announced its arrival with The Gay Heritage Project.
The Gay Heritage Project is a dry title for an unrelentingly entertaining evening of theatre. The play itself recounts how it came about but doesn't explain how something so fresh, moving and utterly hilarious can be conjured from the mostly abandoned ashes of gay history. With boundless energy and rapier wit the cast - who admit that they are members of, "The first generation of gay men who were not actively hunted by their own government" - romp through gay history, Great Gay Canadian Action Figures, and a brilliant song and dance medley that zips from The Wizard of Oz through the history of gays in musical theatre to disco and climaxes with, naturally, Lady Gaga's "Born This Way." Cocky "Gay Theory" meets the seductive "Gay Desire" in a dark alley, and all the threads pull together to bring the political, the historical and the personal into an emotionally explosive finale that linked everyone in the theatre to a universal gay joy.
The cast/creators are uniformly extraordinary. Damien Atkins is a master of the double take, vocal inflection, body language and the arched eyebrow. His "What I Hate About Being a Gay Actor" monologue inspired uncontrollable laughter from even his on-stage conspirators. Paul Dunn appears to be the initial instigator of The Gay Heritage Project and he carries many of the more emotional - there are tear-inducing moments spicing the general frivolity and irreverence - segments with wide-eyed innocence, a complete contrast to his last appearance at Buddies in the searing Pig. The revelation is Andrew Kushnir whose mobile face, flexible body and spot on singing voice, cheerleads casts of characters with impish glee. The three work with clockwork - a timepiece on speed - precision and between them manage to, despite their apologies for all being white gay men so unable to be representative of the LGBT spectrum, connect the entire audience to the foresisters of our past and, more crucially, to each other: the actors on stage, the audience surrounding and every gay yet to be met.
The cast is aided immensely by a versatile set, clever multi-media projections and direction by Ashlie Corcoron that keeps the action fluid and frenetic without losing a beat, a joke or a thought. Revisiting The Normal Heart, Angels in America, Bent and Falsettos, gives us insight into where we have been, how we lived, our rich gay theatrical heritage, but The Gay Heritage Project grabs the past and flings it into the future with rich emotional resonance and enough laughs to fill an evening twice as long. Rumour has it that the original research and improvisation yielded over five hours of material. That it was distilled into such a wonderful fast-moving two hours is laudable, that there are three potential hours of sequels in the offing is cause for joyful anticipation. Don't see The Gay Heritage Project for a history lesson, see it because it is one of the most exhilarating evenings in the theatre that you will ever have.
Somewhere the spirits of Ludlam and Bennett, who died before these creators were toddling, are rubbing their hands with glee, a little bit of envy and a touch of lust.
The Gay Heritage Project continues until Sun, Dec 8 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St. buddiesinbadtimes.com