Dystopian visions are having a moment. With what is happening in the world, particularly to the south of us, what once seemed fantastical is all too plausible. And for those of us who live proudly on the queer spectrum, it is even more frightening. And more plausible.
Playwright Lawrence Aronovitch posits a near-future world where gay/lesbian is once again punishable by death, and what should be a fanciful leap of the imagination registers as a distinct possibility. Sadly the amount of exposition and clever clues used in The Lavender Railroad to establish this world, is not a necessity - the shout out in the program to Rainbow Railroad shows that we are already there.
Aronovitch isn't interested in creating a plea for gay rights or even necessarily warning us how fragile those rights are, he's concerned with trust, faith and the rights of the individual versus the common good. It is fertile material and Aronovitch digs deep with arguments and counter-arguments wrapped in two games of cat and mouse. The characters thrust and parry verbally, trying to decide who can be trusted, who they can have faith in, how badly they will be betrayed.
The Lavender Railroad is divided into two parts, linked metaphorically by the differences between different tea service rituals and the veneer of civilization they represent. The first half has Sebastian (Tony Babcock) hoping to board the lavender railroad to get to safety. The gatekeeper, Mother Courage (Peter Nelson), has to decide if Sebastian's skills as a mathematician are worth risking the entire railroad. This portion takes place just after, and just before, unseen action sequences giving this segment the feel of the pause in a big budget tentpole film where motivations and morality are explained before getting back to the derring-do and explosions.
There should be considerable suspense but the information is doled out in fragments that repeat a few times too often, and with inexplicable long pauses that go slack instead of ratcheting the tension. Mother Courage is dressed in a kimono and espouses a love of poetry, yet denies his obvious (as written, not necessarily as played) gayness. There are moments where he resembles an inscrutable coiled snake ready to strike Babcock's wide-eyed naif, but then there is a pause that stretches. It makes the moment where Babcock plays his obvious card of youth and sex appeal, a footnote rather than a shattering transition. In the second half, where the sexual tension between the women is explored and explosive, the lesbians get to generate a lot more excitement.
Judith Cockman as The Sister and Jennifer Vallance as The Commander have much more defined roles by virtue of the route they have chosen to survive. The dilemma here is whether The Commander really wants to escape via the lavender railroad or if she wants information from The Sister in order to dismantle and destroy the railroad. The women pace and confront each other with eyes that are hungry both for each other and for their goals. They are both riveting.
There are a plethora of ideas and metaphors, all tidily but loosely bound, that give The Lavender Railroad a poetic coherence that encourages engagement and sparks thought. And the ambiguity of both endings are nihilistically horrifying. Perhaps the airless confines of The Box Toronto - the intimate setting of which gives the actors and words nowhere to hide or fake it so they don't - made the night feel overlong, it is hard to sustain suspense when the audience is sweltering. Perhaps the two pieces will join into one dramatic dystopian tentpole piece (there are hints linking the pieces including an unseen and thus fascinating character) or be tightened into a taut two-acter. Or perhaps we should just enjoy the chance to mull over this dissection of where the personal and the political collide in a queer context while we brace for the coming dystopia.
The Lavender Railroad continues until Sun, June 18 at The Box Toronto, 89 Niagara St. ITMtheatre.com