By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Funerals,” says the booming baritone voice on the phone, “are so weird.”
Darrin Hagen is something of an expert. And if there ever was a year to confirm it, it’s been this one, allegedly (but only allegedly) post-COVID, says the playwright/ actor/ director/ composer/ sound designer/ queer activist/ historian. Funerals are a recurring Hagen motif, in life as well as art: scattering his father’s ashes, losing his best friend Catherine, mourning Richard Gishler, the skilled comic actor for whom he’d created a role in a dark comedy about funerals (and writing him a requiem instead). And there’s co-creation of Unsung, an immersive theatre piece he researched and co-created with Workshop West’s Heather Inglis that documents the experience of Alberta health care workers during the pandemic as the provincial government dithered and the death toll mounted.
Yes, the author of 10 Funerals, finally premiering Thursday at Shadow Theatre after a two-year pandemical delay, has a history with funerals. After all, when he bolted from small-town Rocky Mountain House into the big city in the ‘80s, and was baptized into the flamboyant drag queen world, the AIDS crisis claimed cast-mates, friends, acquaintances, one after another. So much has changed, and so much hasn’t.
10 Funerals had double roots, as Hagen describes. One inspiration was comic: Vicious, a TV sitcom starring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, about an old gay couple who’d been together for 50 years. “Why isn’t there more out there about aging gay couples?” wondered Hagen, who found it hilarious. “What about the end of the story?”
Then “I went to a funeral for a friend in 2016, and was just saddened by how few people were there, compared to the old Flashback days.” Unexpected perhaps, considering these more “enlightened” times. “But there was a sense of community then, a defiance about showing up for the ‘chosen family’” when birth families often didn’t.
“Wouldn’t it be interesting,” Hagen asked himself, “to watch a couple aging through funerals…. Kevin (Hagen’s life partner Kevin Hendricks) and I were completely different people in the ‘80s. Funerals were a marker of our own development.”
That idea has found its way into the structure of 10 Funerals, which follows a gay couple returning from a funeral in each of the play’s 10 scenes, “moving forward three years at a time from when they were in their 20s.” They’re played by Doug Mertz and Nathan Cuckow as the older couple version, Jake Tkaczyk and Josh Travnik, in a succession of wigs (costume designer: Leona Brausen), as the younger.
Hair is ephemeral. Weight? Well, you never know. Time has its effect on life goals, relationship dynamics, ideas about mortality. “Only height doesn’t change,” laughs Hagen.
“Am I obsessed with death?” he wonders. 10 Funerals isn’t exactly his first rodeo in that respect. “Funerals are everywhere in the first thing I wrote, The Edmonton Queen (play and book),” says Hagen of his memoir of the small-town kid’s coming-of-age in the drag scene in Edmonton. Guys in Disguise’s first Fringe appearance Delusions of Grandeur — “a two-hour drag show with a play at intermission” as he puts it — happened in 1987 on “the night a friend was murdered.”
But the show must go on, as that unforgiving theatre mantra has it. “That’s what kills me about this fucking business,” he sighs. Hagen, who’s “worked non-stop since last June” (his documentary about the 25th anniversary of the Vriend decision comes out this June), thinks that vis-à-vis death, “theatre is all embrace/denial. We can’t stop.”
Hagen’s Tornado Magnet, whose protagonist Dotty is the queen of the trailer park, opened on the 10th anniversary of Black Friday, a day of elemental fatality at the Evergreen trailer court. Pile Driver, inspired by the gay prairie wrestling circuit, marked one of the last theatrical appearances of Joe Bird, who passed away far too young in 2009. The list goes on.
Have the three pandemical and death-centric years that have intervened since the creation of 10 Funerals and its first workshop in 2018 changed the tone, the weight, the colours of a play created as a black comedy? Hagen considers. “When Richard (Richard Gishler) died, that changed everything,” he says finally “I was crushed, saddened…. It’s as if we’re just an accident of timing. I think how quickly life can change. And it really sent that home to me.”
“It’s such a cruel robber of our dreams. Richard’s last performance was his Zoom reading of my play. And it’s just not fair…. He died during that dark time. And the pandemic has made us all re-evaluate.”
“There’s a real-ness to the play now that can’t be avoided,” says Hagen. “And some lines get a new resonance.” A casual remark of the couple returning from an AIDS funeral, that “they’d never let that happen again” echoes with a new irony now in COVIDian times.
10 Funerals, after all, was written “pre-Black Lives Matter, pre-#MeToo, pre-schisms in the gay community,” says Hagen. “We’ve emerged back into a world that’s radically different. But after the Forced Pause, I still think it’s a comedy.”
Written by: Darrin Hagen
Directed by: John Hudson
Starring: Doug Mertz, Nathan Cuckow, Jake Tkaczyk, Josh Travnik
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: Thursday through May 14
Tickets: 780-343-5564, shadowtheatre.org