The uses and abuses of imagination: ‘Ex Gays’ and ‘Fletcher and Zenobia’ at the Fringe

One of the keys to the Fringe Festival is to pace yourself. I learned this lesson the hard way — I used to participate in the media Fringe Frenzy, in which we sent out dozens of reporters and tried to see as many plays as humanly possible over the first weekend, and then gave capsule reviews of every single one. This left me undesirous of seeing anything else for the rest of the week, and, on the whole, left me exhausted. I’ve been watching the creep of Fringe exhaustion on Twitter, where people who started off determined to throw themselves into the event are begging off shows, heading home, climbing into bed, and feeling like they have failed the festival somehow. 

Well, there’s still a week of Fringe. Rehydrate, renew your spirits, perhaps in a recumbent position, and return renewed and reinvigorated.

I’d like to complain briefly about capsule reviews. I suppose they are useful, after a fashion. One supposes an audience member might use these reviews to determine what shows they are to see, which is a necessary but tedious function of critics. At least the professionals demonstrate that they have a practiced skill at it that is not evident on the audience reviews on the Fringe’s own website. There, people gush and seem untrustworthy, or cavil and seem meanspirited. Worse still, they must work their way around the hardest sort of review of all to write — the “meh,” and find they don’t know what to say. Whatever we write, all are merely expressing opinions about the relative worth of a piece of art, and that is an exercise in frustrating subjectivity, made even more frustrating by the fact that it must be done in so few words.

I am going to write about exactly two shows today. After all, I’ve got the rest of the week to write. And I’ll tell you right off the bat that I liked both shows, to a greater and lesser extent, so we can get that out of the way. But I don’t especially want to talk about if the shows are good or not, or if they are worth seeing or not. From my descriptions, you can decide for yourself whether the shows sound interesting, and, if you see them, you can decide if they were worth your time.

Sheila Regan and Carl Atiya Swanson of "Ex Gays"
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
Sheila Regan and Carl Atiya Swanson of “Ex Gays”

The first show is called “Ex Gays,” which is a shortened version of a full-length play that opened in the Twin Cities just a month or so ago. It’s an especially opportune time to offer such a play, as one of our presidential candidates, Minnesota’s-own Michele Bachmann, is connected to the movement, in that she and her husband run a Christian counseling clinic, which is reported to offer “conversion therapy,” which is supposed to assist gay people in curbing their desires in favor of heterosexuality. This therapy has been repudiated by the American Psychological Association, which considers it to be a potential violation of the practitioner’s Hippocratic Oath, and Bachmann refuses to talk about it, despite claiming her business as one of the accomplishments that give her the Curriculum Vitae to be president. “I am presidential material because I run my own successful business,” she seems to be saying, “which is none of your business and I refuse to talk about it.”

Eric F. Avery and Laura Leffler-McCabe, who cocreated the show, want to talk about it. Not Bachmann, specifically, but the ex-gay movement in general. The movement is a farce perpetrating a tragedy, of course, and so that’s what they have written — the whole of it takes place at a summer camp, Camp Str8-N-Arrow, and consists of a succession of skits based around typical camp activities, such as morning announcements and arts and crafts. But the whole of it exists in an atmosphere that is super-sexualized by repression, where every conversation is a combination of codes and dog whistles, to such an extent that it’s barely comprehensible as English anymore. On the surface, the characters chat amiably about, say, going out on a date with a partner of the opposite sex; underneath it, they reference scripture; under that, they cruise each other. The play seems full of obvious double-entendres, but, with the addition of evangelical references, many are actually triple-entendres, which is unexpected in a show that is often so Benny Hill about sexuality.

To the play’s credit, beneath the superficial nudge nudge wink wink of the play’s skit format, there is the real heartbreak of the ex-gay movement — affections squelched and rebuffed, or, worse still, acted on, with attendant betrayals and shame. This is most poignantly characterized by actress Amber Davis, playing the wife of the Head Pastor, played by Carl Attiya Swanson as a character so gay that, as the Kids in the Hall once put it, “dogs know it.” But Davis’ character is both deeply in love with her husband and has romantic fantasies about him, neither of which he has the ability to — or even interest in — returning. As a result, she is left repeatedly making pathetic public gestures of affection that he ignores or rebuffs, and it’s performed as comedy, but it’s quite sad.

Kimberly Richardson of "Fletcher and Zenobia Save the Circus"
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
Kimberly Richardson of “Fletcher and Zenobia Save the Circus”

Thankfully, I also saw a comedy which is genuinely celebratory, despite being based on the writing of Edward Gorey, who was usually quite dark in his writing. The play is “Fletcher and Zenobia Save the Circus,” produced by the inventive Live Action Set and directed by Sara Richardson. The story is one that was written with children in mind, about a cat and a doll who find themselves the unlikely heroes of a traveling circus that has met with an accident. This production isn’t so much created with children in mind as it was created as though children had conceived of it. The whole of it is directed to feel improvised — it’s made out of cardboard costumes and almost no set at all. Further, it features endless asides and moments of practiced chaos, all of which are quite entertaining. Zenobia, as an example, is played by Sara Richardson’s longtime collaborator (and near-namesake), Kimberly Richardson, and she delivers Zenobia’s dialogue with the affected mannerisms of a product of East Coast society. But she performs with the abandon of a little girl, launching into impromptu and physically unlikely dances when she wants attention, and wandering out into the audience to demand applause whenever she is left unattended.

Most of the show is a one-ring circus, including trick horseback riding, wild animals, and tightrope walking, none of which involves any actual horses, wild animals, or tightropes. But there’s a great derring-do to the show nonetheless, in that the actors are pretending to do these things, and never try to pass it off as anything other than a scrappy pretense, but insist that the audience treat it as though it were a real circus they were seeing. Fiction is, after all, the willing suspension of disbelief. It is that willingness that allows us to do one of childhood’s defining activities — to pretend. So this show invites its audience to participate, not as performers, but fellow pretenders, and it winds up being exciting, in its own way. It’s the miracle of imagination: If we pretend hard enough, a path of toilet paper becomes a tightrope, at least for a little while. And it’s much more pleasurable to briefly pretend a circus into existence than I imagine it is to briefly pretend homosexuality is something that can be wished away.

Now that I think about it, both shows are about the possibilities and limits of the imagination. And I’m happier in a world in which we use our imaginations to will something fabulous into being rather than abuse our imaginations to take something fabulous and annihilate it.

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