The Terrible Parents: Sky Gilbert's melodramatic comedy mashes Orlando, Kafka, hag horror and Edith Fore
by Drew Rowsome
While the effervescently tragic saga of The Terrible Parents played out, the audience couldn't help but laugh, gasp and be moved to the verge of tears. A lot to get from a satirical drama that runs a brief 85 minutes with intermission. (And I must here emphasize that I attended a preview performance so that undoubtedly an even brisker pace and tighter structure is in store) But the gift didn't stop giving. While in the process of viewing, and with my critical faculties tuned high, there was a sense of disjointedness and some confusion - not enough to detract from my enjoyment, but certainly enough to claw in deep and trigger a reassessment that is still happening in my head.
On the surface, The Terrible Parents is the tale of a dysfunctional family, particularly a magnificent monster of a mother. As we all come from dysfunctional families, The Terrible Parents comes packed with triggers and wildly varying reference points. My fellow-theatregoer sat in the adjoinng seat but saw an almost totally different play: scenes that horrified him, made me laugh out loud; the ending that cracked my heart in two only put a dent in his resolve; fortunately we also frequently laughed or nodded appreciatively in unison. The discussion afterwords is ongoing.
The plot of The Terrible Parents is melodramatic high camp but the style is Brechtian realism. The distancing is necessary for the comedy but also, oddly, integral to the themes. At first the revolving stage - a large piece of equipment for Buddies designed by Joe Pagnon who also created the giant clockwork set for Into the Woods - seems unnecessary, an intrusive way of changing scenes that calls attention to the blackouts. But that is exactly the point: each time the stagehands put their shoulders to the wheel and then lock the mechanism in place with a resounding thud that packs a physical wallop, we are reminded that this isn't Les Miz, this is these characters lives. They are trapped in a world that won't stop revolving, their denial can only stop their self-made fate for the length of a scene.
What at first seems to be wooden or deliberately stilted performances from Robin Sharp and Katie Sly as the children, reveal themselves to be parroting of their parents. And, to add another layer, the actors playing their parents - Sharp's evocation of Gavin Crawford's fatherly gait and Ed Roy's motherly flamboyance is startling, and when Sly appears as Dolly Parton crossed with Crawford's father-figure upright stick-up-his-ass rigidity, mountains of exposition are provided without a word of text. Roy has a great time as the first incarnation of the mother - all repressed sensuality oozing and bursting out as inappropriately as his non-tuck in leotards - but his turn as the seductive, somewhat sleazy, Jerry is a true wonder. And his predatory homosexist waiter is a master class in implying a lot, hilariously, with mere glances, physicality and double takes.
It is when Crawford takes over as Amelia the mother (a nod to Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Kafka, hag horror and Edith Fore) that The Terrible Parents takes on a terrible power. It is a towering performance that transcends drag and the Sirkian overtones to create a fully-realized sympathetic horror. Camp is built into the portrayal, is the crucible, but an exhilarating woman, the fantasy mother/diva that could only be conjured in the memories of a gay child. It is remarkable.
Sky Gilbert is a deliberate provocateur (his Cabaret Company motto is "personal, immediate, controversial, political, dangerous, sexual and queer") but The Terrible Parents feels guardedly personal. What is revealed in the finale is still echoing in my brain, what we learn from our parents' mistakes and what we don't, and how that affects the way we love, and our very ability to love. The Terrible Parents is a fun night at the theatre with great performances and a lot of laughs, but it is the aftermath that is the true gift.
The Terrible Parents continues until Sun, April 17 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St. buddiesinbadtimes.com