In James Fagan Tait’s new play, The Explanation, John likes to dress up as a woman. During one of his weekly visits to the central library in Vancouver dressed as one, he meets Dick. Not realizing John is a man until he speaks, the two begin an uneasy relationship, which ultimately leads to them marrying.
Today, of course, the marriage of two men will barely raise an eyebrow. In Tait’s unconventional love story though, John (Kevin MacDonald) and Dick (Evan Frayne) are straight. It is here where a potentially fresh and subversive take on gender and sexuality fails. And to be clear, it is important to know these observations come with bias, as I identify as a gay white cisgender man.
While Tait goes out of his way to tell us how sexuality and gender can be fluid, his characters remind us at every opportunity that they are straight. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t work to dismantle labels in one breath, while continuing to label in another. It becomes the equivalent of saying “not that there is anything wrong with it” when referring to homosexuality.
Which leads to another issue with Tait’s play, in that much of what John and Dick talk about happened 15 years ago. In this historical context, Tait effectively erases the importance of the struggles of the gay community over the past 15 years. Straight men have no rights in this hard-fought battle for acceptance. Even as a metaphor the politics simply do not work.
Tait also manages to introduce a thread of sexism, with both men asking the other, “will you protect me?” after dressing as women. In a play attempting to explore the ideas of gender and sexuality it is disappointing this attitude is simply stated as if it acceptable.
And therein lies the biggest rub. While John and Dick may be relating stories of 15 years ago, little of The Explanation is presented in a contemporary context. Are we to believe the two have not learned anything over the ensuing decade and a half?
Not helping the cause, on opening night Kevin MacDonald, had to call on the booth for assistance twice during the opening monologue. Interrupting the momentum, it took time as an audience member to reinvest in the story.
As Dick, Evan Frayne fares better and when united with MacDonald there is fun to be had, especially in the dance numbers choreographed by Noam Gagnon. But it is difficult to invest in either of these characters with a play filled with frustrating sexual and gender politics.
One supposes it would be easy take the attitude of Tait’s characters who were fond of saying “whatever”. But this is theatre; indifference should not be aspirational.
The Explanation, written and directed by James Fagan Tait. A frank theatre company production presented by The Cultch. On stage at The Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab until April 29. Visit http://thecultch.com for tickets and information.