My Gay Toronto - MGT Stage

Hackerlove & The Mystery of Edwin Drood
by Drew Rowsome

Geeks in lust:
Photos by Paul Flude

Hackerlove is subtitled "a theatrical fantasy." That is an accurate descriptor.

Playwright and director Sky Gilbert takes the historical facts surrounding the scandal that occurred when hacker Bradley Manning leaked classified US diplomatic messages and then, once imprisoned, became Chelsea Manning. Gilbert focuses on the relationship between Manning and his fellow hacker, the bisexual, Adrian Lamo who also alerted the authorities to Manning's deeds. In reality the two only had contact in cyberspace but Gilbert freely introduces speculative "what ifs" that allow him to explore the many ideas and themes that are ricocheting around in his fertile and provocative mind.

The schematic and fragmented structure utterly defeats any narrative momentum, but the disorientation that results is a clever conceptualization of the online experience and, a crucial note, the entirety of Hackerlove is never less than wildly entertaining and often laugh-out-loud funny. Even breaking - more like shattering - the fourth wall for a section involving the audience's cell phones that seems initially extraneous, ties in neatly by initiating a scathing and hilarious debate on whether our technological devices connect us or distance us from each other. The performers refer to the explicit slapstick sex scene that immediately preceded as "gratuitous nudity" when in actuality it simply and effectively demonstrates the power dynamics of the relationship. That Gilbert gets to comment on the audience's potential discomfort, arousal, or even shock, is a bonus.

Both of the actors have to work hard to inject humanity into characters that could be illustrative moments in a powerpoint presentation. Nick Green has the tougher job with Lamo claiming, "I'm cold and distant and unfeeling. That's not the same as uptight." The character registers as borderline autistic but Green manages to create comic moments out of the tics and frigidity. 

Kawa Ada begins at a fever pitch - fitting for a devotee of Greta Garbo's Mata Hari (of which we see a little too much) - and manages to sustain it and his Southern accent throughout. As the passionate half of the duo he automatically has our empathy and his passion radiates even as we ache for his misplaced devotions and thwarted desires. That he overcomes the extreme disconnect between his tightly muscled and extremely masculine body -fortunately frequently exposed - and the character's being in the midst of transition to becoming Chelsea, is a testimony to his skill and charisma: what the eye sees and the mind registers are two totally different things.

I hesitate to credit the conception of the versatile set  - designed by Andy Moro - to assistant director Sunny Drake but it does echo the stunning visuals of X. The abundant projections are necessary to keep the flood of ideas flowing: Gilbert manages to touch on bisexuality, trans issues, censorship, gay relationships, emotional distance, political correctness, etc, etc, all without losing a beat or the thin thread holding it all together. Emotionally Hackerlove climaxes with a dance number - yes, the theatrical techniques used throughout are, again like life online, also varied and disorienting - choreographed by secret weapon Keith Cole. Even in those achingly beautiful moments, the performers' faces are covered in Anonymous masks creating a frisson that illustrate Gilbert's central discussion flawlessly and simply.

Anyone who is new to Gilbert's work will have an entertaining time and will have lots of topics for post-theatre discussion; Gilbert devotees will revel in a new work that shows one of our important playwrights continuing to expand his artistic reach and indulge his urge to experiment while tightening his technique. Hackerlove is an experience that could never be duplicated online and is a celebration of the power of theatre.

Hackerlove continues until Sun, May 11 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St.


Having a Dickens of a good time solving
The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Princess Puffer is a determined woman.

The actress Angela Prysock who plays Princess Puffer in The Mystery of Edwin Drood is determined to have the audience indict her as the murderer.

The actress Sharon Zehavi who plays Angela Prysock who plays Princess Puffer in The Mystery of Edwin Drood is even more determined than her two alter-egos.

The play within a play within a performance is more hilarious than confusing and Zehavi - an alchemical fusion of Karen Black and Nina Arsenault topped with a Tim Burton-esque rat's nest of Helena Bonham Carter hair - wields her formidable corset-supported breasts (and almost as abundant charm) to cajole and seduce. Though her voice is more Elaine Stritch than Elaine Paige, she struts and preens and, no surprise, the night we attended The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Princess Puffer/Angela Prysock/Sharon Zehavi got her wish and was voted, by a large margin, the villain. I suspect it was just a collective desire to see what she would do with the "Murderer's Confession" number.

Diva sex appeal always catches the eye which gives Zehavi an advantage - and two extra advantages due to the lovely low cut of her costume - over the rest of the 22 members of the cast. The conceit that the somewhat rundown English Music Hall Royale is presenting The Mystery of Edwin Drood requires all the performers to shamelessly mug for attention and milk the audience for applause. This is a good thing as the basic plot - apologies to Charles Dickens - is negligible, and the Rupert Holmes, of "Escape (The Pina Colada Song" fame, score doesn't give some very fine voices much to work with.

But the cast is game and the hoary - ribald bordering on raunchy - puns get laughs. The audience is quickly on board and eager to play along. Ilan Muskat is an amiable narrator and by sheer force of charisma holds the proceedings together. Luke Hobbs navigates an underwritten - both musically and textually - Jekyll and Hyde role with aplomb and is an effective leading man. The two have a song and dance duet that, surrounded by a chorus that is vocally magnificent but choreographically challenged, demonstrates just how to sell a number.

The clown Seth Mukamel is adorable in a Bert Lahr style and ably earns the vote (there is a lot of audience participation that, with a bigger house than the night we attended, should become quite raucous) for love interest. Alexandra Reed has a rapturous soprano that rivets but, like many of the numbers, she is frequently stranded in the middle of the stage forced to perform without any context or back up. If the songs and staging were stronger she would have blown out the back walls of the theatre.

Even more comic relief is provided by Robby Burko whose characters are fuelled by ambition born of desperation. Not only is he possessed of the Showgirls-esque drive of a performer consigned to the sidelines, but he also adopts a fey undertone that adds an exploding closet edge to the showstopper, "Never the Luck." Unfortunately Burko also has the bad luck to be undone by significant sound problems - microphones cut in and out all night and the mix was frequently a step behind, or ahead, of the vocals.

These sorts of technical issues undercut The Mystery of Edwin Drood frequently. The first time the follow spot had to search for the performer meant to be singled out, it read as a gag on the quality of the Music Hall Royale; when it happened consistently, it became distracting. Poor Princess Puffer was in the midst of a big number, "The Garden Path to Hell," when the spotlight missed her completely and instead illuminated a stagehand not-so-subtly making a scene change. To Zehavi's credit, she didn't miss a beat - she also ably assisted Burko in a moment of microphone crisis - but the damage was done. The Mystery of Edwin Drood has an opulent and clever set but there is still some staging work to be done: the biggest laughs of the evening were awarded to John Meadows whose hapless Throttle was charged with making sure a potted plant was in the right position on stage.

And therein lies the true crime at the heart of The Mystery of Edwin Drood: the run is so short that by the time it hits the giddy heights this production is capable of, it will be over. To be fair we attended a preview performance with a half-full, and invited, audience so the technical issues may already be ironed out, and the cast will have channelled their enthusiasm into that wonderful space where technique meets hamminess. A large cast, 22 is of Mirvish proportions, is all set to entertain you and it would be absolutely dastardly for audiences to not participate in the romp. No-one really cares who killed Edwin Drood - except perhaps Princess Puffer - but the melodramatic musical journey to get to the reveal is extremely entertaining fun.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood continues until Sun, May 11 at the Al Green Theatre, 750 Spadina Ave.