Honestly, this was a relief. The box office staff warned us that the show was going to be slightly different than the content described on the Fringe website, which was my first “Uh oh” moment. Because we’d seen their preview in the touring artists showcase the night before – and that was VERY different than the show promised on the website. There was also a “warning” that the show would be short, only 40 minutes long. But if it had been 40 minutes of what we sampled in the preview, I’m not sure I could have handled that. Both for better and for worse, Kyle and Sean Are Lovers was not what I feared.
What was promised on the website was part of the reason I was there. Having heard praiseworthy things said about past Fringe productions from T or D or S (Theater or Death or… not sure what the S is for, didn’t pick that up from their blog), and seeing that this production was supposed to have GLBT content I thought, “This might be the time to give their particular brand of theater a try.” As near as I can tell, both from what I’ve heard and what I’ve just experienced over the past couple of nights, T or D or S is trying to present performance to the audience that seems so real and unstaged that it actually makes you uncomfortable. As if you’re watching something genuine but treating it as entertainment. And what does that make you, as a passive spectator, consuming this but not calling out what might seem wrong about it.
Now, the press release I originally received had nothing about white supremacists on it. And I could almost swear, if I’d done a screen grab at the time, that the original posting on their Fringe web page for the show said nothing about Nazis. Maybe somebody said, “Guys, you really can’t do that. The bait and switch is so egregious, it borders on audience abuse. And nobody signs on for that for 12 bucks and a four dollar button, not even at the Minnesota Fringe Festival.” Or maybe they didn’t. Looking carefully at the press release I was sent now, I do see that it’s very carefully worded. I assumed when the word Pride was used, it referred to Gay Pride. But it could just as easily be White Pride. It doesn’t specify. So, points for caginess and clever word play.
They were essentially their own spoiler alert at the Touring Artist Showcase with their preview, so I’m not going to feel badly about mentioning that though the play starts with confessions about homosexual tendencies and experimentation, it takes a turn into something a lot darker. That something would be what they gave up in the preview. The preview was itself a pretty spectacular piece of audience trolling so I have to give them props for sheer balls. “This was the only group we had to tell to keep their clothes on,” Fringe Executive Director Jeff Larson said in his introduction. Sure enough, the minute Kyle Potter walked out on stage, he took off his shirt and pants and proceeded to stand there for the rest of the preview, mute, in his boxer briefs.
Sean Neeley then appeared, opened his writing journal, and proceeded to read from it the terms of their upcoming show. It wasn’t really a show. It was using theater, in the midst of a much larger festival, so as not to attract attention to their actual intent. They were recruiting, through hazing tactics of humiliation, soldiers for their planned uprising in October of 2015. A mass shooting. (Yeah, it gets worse, or better. Really depends on where you’re sitting.) Some people were laughing at this – either nervous laughter because they weren’t sure it was a joke but they were hoping it was, or outright laughter because they were convinced it was a joke and they couldn’t believe their ears. The bulk of the audience was just listening. Maybe internally recoiling. Maybe just sitting there thinking “WTF?!”
Then a woman behind me for some reason felt compelled to make sure that everyone around her was certain that SHE was in no way OK with such pronouncements. It was probably right after Sean first used the N word, followed by Faggot, followed by Jew. “Isn’t there a time limit on these things? Shouldn’t they be done?” Well, no, sweetheart. The touring artists aren’t subjected to the three minute limit with green, yellow and red lights, enforced by audience applause to get them offstage. (She even tried abortively to applaud to end things.) Normally they only get five minutes and I know, I feel you, this preview is so uncomfortable that it feels longer than five minutes. But this guy knows what he’s doing. He’s trolling you. He couldn’t have more effectively gotten a rise out of you if he’d entitled his show “Shut Up, You Self-Righteous Beeyotch.” You are playing right into his hands. And the more you respond to him, the more you’re feeding him. He’s going to keep talking until you shut up and stop giving him what he wants. And you have now effectively convinced me that I need to see his show. Because you’re being needlessly rude. To a visiting artist. It’s the old Voltaire “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” thing. He got a rise out of you, now you’ve gotten a rise out of me. (And if THAT was also part of their marketing strategy, wholly crap these guys are brilliant.)
I mention all this because the show itself never delivered this kind of verisimilitude. And thus, none of the same shock and discomfort. The show begins with two men emerging, naked, onto the stage area. They introduce themselves. They shake hands. They grab each others penises in greeting. They sit down, one draping himself in a Sponge Bob Squarepants sheet, the other draping himself in what I hope was a sheet that looked like the American flag and not an actual American flag, but given this set of artists, anything goes. They opened their writing journals and took turns recounting their formative sexual experiences as straight boys experimenting with homosexual interactions. They were guided by a spotlight and a disembodied voice piped in over a microphone.
And here’s where it went off the rails I think they wanted to stay on. Because this opening sequence was extremely effective in presentation. They lowered their voices to force the audience to pay closer attention. They were aware of, but seemed scared of, the audience. But they never mumbled. They were always very clear in the things they said and the way they said them, all the while making it seem natural and unrehearsed. In the preview, we got that same kind of presentation also giving us the racist manifesto as well.
Here the actors onstage use the gay confessions as the beginning of a ritual. But the ritual is guided, and the racist thoughts espoused, by the disembodied voice over the sound system. In the preview we saw the face of evil. In the show, that face is hidden. What made the preview so shocking and uncomfortable was that a human being in front of us was saying these things directly to us, to the point where we weren’t spectators but participants in a conversation. And thus culpable for the turns that conversation was taking. The show itself was a piece of theater. No one was confronting us.
Please know I am grateful that someone didn’t emerge with a handful of human intestines to prove that a ritual killing had been performed. I am also grateful there were no human screams. I am also grateful that stage blood never looks real. I am also grateful that the murder was not literally committed in front of us like some kind of live action snuff film.
I am grateful for all of these things. But maybe I shouldn’t be.
Because something I wasn’t was unsettled. Something I wasn’t was uncomfortable. Something I wasn’t was moved.
If I had seen the face of evil, as a human being in front of me daring me to speak out, that would have rattled me.
It rattled me in the preview. I was unsure what I was watching.
Here, I was watching a piece of theater. And I disembodied voice thanking me for my passive spectating just isn’t an indictment that stings. Not in the way I think they want it to. I wanted this to matter more. I think they did to.
2.5 stars – Not Bad, Still Needs Some Work