By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The theatre is dim, lit with a barrage of come-hither text messages: “send a vid”, “wyd”, “join me and a couple buds”, “your cute”, “no pic no chat” “my truck?”.
When the lights come up, you can make out a playground: a sort of treehouse, stylized trees, a bench (set and lighting, both eloquent, by Even Gilchrist).
The queer teenage characters of Mac Brock’s explosively performed Boy Trouble ricochet through the liminal space between these axes — the portal between childhood friendship and a shadowy “adult” world of mysterious connections. Both are underscored, in different ways, by secrecy.
Brock’s new play, premiering in Fringe Theatre’s Spotlight Series in a production directed by the playwright, explores the intricacies and ambiguities of coming-of-age. Save the word “bittersweet,” oft slathered on such stories, for some other play. Here it’s a veritable minefield for characters discovering their sexual identity in a world that’s both small and hostile (like school and family), and big and available (like Grindr and the internet).
It’s 2015. And at 16 boyhood friends Kay (Maxwell Hanic) and Anthony (Romar Dungo) are gay, but at different angles. The former, who has white affluence and a mother with a girlfriend on his side, hasn’t fully opened the closet door, just in case. The latter, who has found himself gay friends his own age, is from a struggling immigrant Filipino family with conservative Catholic expectations.
Keepers of each other’s secrets, allies against bullying, the friends have fallen out. And in the course of the six-year span of Boy Trouble, a completely rewritten version of Brock’s 2019 play, we find out why.
In Brock’s production, two compelling, physically dexterous actors don’t just occupy the stage. They clamour over it at top speed, swing through it, tumble off and under it. They’re in perpetual motion, physically restless even when they (barely) stop to text, upside down right side up — a test of sturdiness for Gilchrist’s evidently hurricane-proof playground design. They lob cellphones as they go in a way that will make you queasy. The video design by Tori Morrison and Judah Truong is a simultaneous participant.
As kids, the performances reveal, Kay and Anthony’s friendship is a perpetual motion game of tag, a choreography of jostling playful movement that will leave you just a bit breathless. And as teenagers this hyperactivity translates, in narrative terms, into a questing for the equilibrium and footing that are heartbreakingly elusive. Moving targets are harder to impale, after all. Rare moments of stillness are genuinely disturbing in Brock’s production.
The friends have been bonded by secrecy. In the play’s present, secrecy and the threat of exposure, with the attendant shame, have driven a wedge between former allies. What was playful and teasing has an edge, sometimes almost violent sometimes almost sexual. The fight and intimacy direction, a continuity in this play, are by Sam Jeffery.
Coming-of-age has made Kay furtive and cautious, as Hanna’s wonderfully nervy performance charts. Dungo, a discovery for Edmonton theatre, brings a certain sweet boyish earnestness to Anthony that’s turned to unease at the edges. You believe both characters: Kay who’d been a dispenser of advice, and Anthony, who’s taken on that self-assignment. And you really want these queer kids to find some sort of happiness and repose to go with their smiles.
Brock is a sharp-eared writer of staccato dialogue that shoots out in overlapping fragments and shards. In the hands of the actors the text feels convincingly alive — tentative, quickly withdrawn, amended, re-introduced. And the situation feels fraught, twitchy, momentous (which as the news reminds us is by no means an over-reaction). Boy Trouble plants a flag on the tough terrain where the going should be easier than it is, and the path of self-discovery is rockier than ever.
Theatre: Amoris Projects
Written and directed by: Mac Brock
Starring: Maxwell Hanic and Romar Dungo
Where: Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: through May 27