By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
No wonder we’re screwed up. We’re looking for definitive clarity and judgment in a language full of unruly verbs — dust, sanction, screen, bolt, cleave — that contain their own opposites.
Cleave: to hold together. Cleave: to separate. The latest from Tiny Bear Jaws and its agile resident muse Elena Belyea, plays with this thought, so full of potential for comedy and its darker dramatic brethren, in a piece that frames the ancient dual quest for identity and connection in a contemporary way.
The protagonist, for starters, is an intersex kid; talk about upping the ante on teen angst. Seventeen-year-old Aaron has moved from rural Alberta to the big city, in search of high school anonymity, and the official go-ahead for the surgery that will propel his (his choice of pronoun) transitioning to male. And one of the intriguing surprises of Cleave is that, as set forth in Jordan Fowlie’s watchful, compellingly understated performance, Aaron is the most calmly self-knowing character in the play.
This grave outsider, the stranger in town, will have a profound effect on a family: a couple of parents with secrets of their own (one a lot less comprehensible than the other) and two teenage kids. As the Tiny Bear Jaws canon confirms, Belyea is a deft hand at funny, staccato, overlapping dialogue. And Cleave hereby joins the crammed world archive of family dinners gone off the rails when strangers are present, in a chaotic, gruesomely comic scene of crossed wires, unwelcome recognition, unanswered questions, and flying salad.
Awkwardness reigns supreme, including over-heartiness from Paul the dad (Dave Horak) and the mom Carol (Elena Porter). The catalyst for this exercise in group indigestion is a mysterious photo, and an explosive burst of hostility from Pina (Emma Houghton) who has achieved a life goal of being on the cheerleading team. She spends quite some time wearing a paper bag over her head. She has her reasons (you won’t hear them from me). Suffice to say that they aren’t persuasive to her brother Mark, in Luc Tellier’s endearingly nerdy performance the funniest character in the play, but are unqueried by Mark’s new classmate Aaron. The latter, after all, has an outsider’s wide tolerance for differences.
The performances from Sabourin’s cast, including Horak and Porter, have believable real-life weight and dimension to them. Where Cleave founders a bit, I think, is in the gender therapist character Rachel, gamely played by Natasha Napoleao. Her meetings with Aaron — she asks questions; he answers in well-organized long-form — are rather self-evidently the device the play uses to dole out a quantity of (useful) information about what “intersex” means, the physiological implications, the process of transitioning, how gender questions don’t resolve sexuality issues, etc.
She asks questions, in a smiley therapist way, that the play often addresses in a more elliptical and dramatically satisfying way elsewhere. So there’s a patina of artificiality; the meetings seem to halt proceedings rather than legitimately propel or counterpoint them. OK, Rachel isn’t the first therapist to be a lot less well-adjusted (or -informed) than her client. But by the time, late in the play, she asks Aaron why he wants surgery, she’s demonstrating an out-and-out lack of confidence in the play in which she’s embedded.
Tellier captures in a beautiful, alert way the bruised precocity and innocence of Mark, a science geek bullied at school by gangs of marauding youth who pelt him with luncheon meat. An outcast amongst his peers, he spends his time online, applying to be a volunteer for Mars missions; “you have to die somewhere,” he shrugs cheerfully.
He has a beautifully written, heartbreakingly inconclusive late-play scene with Horak that lingers in the air, a whole coming-of-age in a moment.
Liza Xenzova’s lovely bi-level design, which includes a transformable table or two, is dominated by a screens that, like the contronym verb “cleave” itself, sometimes seem rock-hard opaque and other times revealingly translucent.
Which brings us back to the sense of possibility in contradiction that Cleave is all about galvanizing. Along with sexuality, gender isn’t necessarily an either-or prescription, the play proposes. You’re in motion on a moveable spectrum, ready to cleave to connections. You find your family (though probably not at dinner); you find love. It’s not a play with pre-ordained answers; it’s hopeful that way.
Theatre: Tiny Bear Jaws presented by Fringe Theatre Adventures
Written by: Elena Belyea
Directed by: Vanessa Sabourin
Starring: Jordan Fowlie, Dave Horak, Emma Houghton, Elena Porter, Luc Tellier, Natasha Napoleao
Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 104 St.
Running: through April 7
Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca