— Production image
It’s not on par with seeing the first play by Morris Panych and Ken MacDonald, Last Call, in 1982, or John Gray’s second musical, Billy Bishop Goes to War, in 1978, both of which premiered at the Cultch back in the day, but one does leave Dave Deveau’s My Funny Valentine at The Firehall thinking, hey, this guy might have something…
Ditto for barefooted, solo performer, Anton Lipovetsky, a Studio 58 grad quickly gaining a reputation, who portrays a handful of characters while dressed—a tad bizarrely—in grey sweat pants; changing voices, talking non-stop for eighty-five minutes, circling around a tragedy, the exact details of which are tantalizingly withheld by the script.
On the surface, with its intentionally misleading title My Funny Valentine, this is a gay-themed work from Deveau as Zee Zee Theatre’s Playwright in Residence, based on a grim news story; ostensibly a well-meaning investigation of the social impact of a hate crime. In a nutshell: On February 11, 2008, in California, a gay 14-year-old named Lawrence King asked his classmate Brandon McInerney to be his valentine. The next day, McInerney, age 13, shot King twice in the head. After being declared brain-dead, King died on Valentine’s Day three days later.
Just those three sentences in a press release are enough to generate respectful curiosity from media and strong interest in the gay community. It’s not surprising, with its ‘real life’ backdrop, that My Funny Valentine had its second production last May at the Dublin Gay Theatre Festival and there is an autumn opening slated for Johannesberg. It’s not exactly The Inquest of Stephen Biko, but the play does succeed in enabling society to never forget.
One section among the various monologues jumps out near the outset – No, we should not be aiming to promote tolerance. The goal should be equality. – So My Funny Valentine does its job, it galvanizes our attention to seek the path for change, rather than indulging in retrospective handwringing. But as much as one is pleased to learn of its nominations for an Oscar Wilde Award and a Jessie, its lack of focus can make one wonder how it received the Sydney Risk Prize for Outstanding Original Play by an Emerging Playwright. (When does an artist ever stop emerging?)
Lipovetsky starts with a confessional monologue by a relatively unsophisticated wannabe journalist who is recalling how he rushed over to the crime scene and ‘scooped’ the story, getting his byline in national newspapers. It was Valentine’s Day and this rather bumbling reporter was spicing up his love life by taking his wife to a No-Tell Motel, making love to her with the television blaring so as not to impolitely bother other motel guests, when he saw a tv news flash about the shooting nearby and raced over to the school where it happened.
We presume this reporter’s opening monologue will lead us to closer to an examination of the crime story, introducing the two boys, perhaps their parents. What exactly did the Valentine’s Day card say? How did the killer get the gun? Was the victim flamingly gay or was he in the closet? But the reporter’s voice is not heard again.
Instead Deveau has chosen to circle around the incident, NOT personalizing the victim or the killer. Lipovetsky is called upon to undertake a series of private monologues, most engagingly from a gay classmate; least convincingly from a paranoid gay-basher; gradually culminating in the voice of a somewhat confused high school teacher who is both alarmed and mystified by it all.
This work is not tied together by politics, or gay rights education, or any documentary resolve or zeal. It is an exercise in compassion. That’s the inexplicable something that Deveau has going for him. He’s not just smart; he’s caring; sufficiently so that he wants to get inside the heads of people that we might otherwise, under normal social conditions, not bother to get to know, or even talk to.
Deveau has opted to explore how a tragedy—any tragedy, not just a gay-bashing murder—can percolate in the lives of people on the periphery of the story. The characters presented by Lipovetsky are not the people who would ever get interviewed by the press for explanations or juicy details; instead My Funny Valentine provides private voices to the innocent bystanders who get to wonder what the hell just happened.
To do so, Deveau has tried to emulate the informal, scattergun verisimilitude of real speech rather than tightly-strung, Neil-Simonized-old-school dialogue. One supposes this approach is meant to render Lipovetsky’s portrayal of the characters more genuine, but without any distractions (minimal music, minimal movement) this dialogue style wears thin. On CBC Radio one can only tolerate that earnest, Stuart McLean style of confidential narrative for about five minutes, plus that Vinyl Café stuff provides the saving grace of cutesy endings. Here Deveau sticks with his attempt to replicate natural, informal patter; and Lipovetsky is not enough of a changeling to fully compensate for the play’s circular, immersion agenda, in lieu of a linear plot.
Previously Mary Walsh’s one-woman show at The Firehall featured a myriad of time-tested characters, long-developed distinctive voices and a steady stream of costume changes. Lipovetsky has grey sweat pants. It’s a hard act to follow. But we go home excited, or at least moved—not so much by this play, but by the two so-called emerging talents who are chiefly responsible for this theatrical experiment in generating intimacy with people who have suffered the collateral damage of tragedy.
Director/producer Cameron Mackenzie deserves commendation for putting them together, having first presented the piece at the PAL Theatre in 2011.
Deveau is going to write better plays; and Lipovetsky is going to give even stronger performances. But in the words of that old Stephen Stills song, “There’s something happening here… what it is ain’t exactly clear…” I still recall Last Call and Billy Bishop; if you don’t want simple, you might want to go and see if you will remember My Funny Valentine.
-- A.R. Twigg