Sex, particularly gay sex, and even more particularly BDSM gay sex, can be simultaneously mysterious and hilarious, exciting and unsettling - it's just the nature of the beast. With Nature of the Beast, playwright Brandon Crone (Donors, Maypole Rose) blends sex farce with horror and spices with leather and bondage, to whip up (pun intended) an entertainment about innocence lost. Whether that loss is comic or tragic is ambiguous.
The opening scene in which Nicholas Rice and Clint Butler, negotiate the terms of their agreement for a week of fornication and flagellation, is a witty satire of all sexual negotiations, here exemplified by the codified regulations of the BDSM world. The fun continues when Jakob Ehman (Donors, Firebrand, Cockfight) as the 17-year-old nephew of the older and more experienced Rice, arrives, unexpected, at the door. All of the characters have secrets and there is considerable comic mileage made of as to just when the shackled slave in the basement will be discovered.
As an audience we have already made part of the same journey Ehman has in order to arrive at his uncle's secluded and somewhat eerie cabin. The Storefront Theatre has been modified so that getting to one's seat requires strolling through a twilight-lit and slightly spooky garden. A clock ticks ominously and the soundscape is industrial electronics that reinforce the darker aspects of whips and chains. The froth of farce acquires a bit of foreboding bite.
It's all very titillating and at its best when framed through Ehman's priceless befuddlement and double takes. Unfortunately all the strands and ideas don't quite cohere - Ehman's dawning sexual attraction and the erotic cat-and-mouse game with Butler the slave is wonderfully tense, but an entire play of its own waiting to be written - and the abrupt final scenes feel a bit forced. Director Luke Brown (Jesus Christ Superstar) has almost solved the shifts in tone, but the naturalism of the opening doesn't quite survive the straining for profundity that capsizes the climax.
The cast is dedicated and make skillful use of the intimate space, eye movements and gestures are subtle but carry big weight, both comic and dramatic. Verbal timing and emotional leaps are also smoothly navigated for maximum impact. Gay sex, and sado-masochistic sex games, aren't as shocking as Nature of the Beast wants them to be, but through Ehman and Crone's eyes they do illuminate the innocence we all once had, and asks some fundamental questions about the nature of theatre and sex, two other beasts that can't be tamed but can't be resisted.
Nature of the Beast continues until Sat, April 11 at The Storefront Theatre, 955 Bloor St W. safeword.ca