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Taking ‘hag horror’ seriously

Writer and actor David Benjamin Tomlinson (pictured above) was raised in a family of strong women. So how fitting that he used his passion for female power to create Gash, an action- packed play that takes on gender with wit and intrigue.

The seeds of Gash, one of the few queer plays at Summerworks this month, were cultivated by Tomlinson’s own portrayal of a strong woman in Sky Gilbert’s Shakespeare Experiment. As Audrey, the lusty country bumpkin from As You Like It, Tomlinson was dressed to the nines. “I wore a huge curly blonde wig, had massive boobs and a big skirt,” says Tomlinson. “Prancing around in rehearsals, people were intimidated.”

Tomlinson fondly recalls that even Gilbert called his character a mute gypsy slut and had trouble directing him dressed that way. As a lively, sex-crazed character Audrey herself at one point says, “I am not a slut, though I thank the gods I am foul.” This kind of double-edged self-awareness is a trademark of the kind of female character Tomlinson is attracted to and has seen portrayed over and over again in film, theatre and television.

He refers to what he calls the “hag horror” movies of the 1960s, his primary touchstone for this decidedly melodramatic genre. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane are the quintessential hag horror role models who’ve spawned countless fabulous interpretations ranging from Crystal and Alexis in Dynasty to Jessica Lange in the more recent American Horror Story.

But Tomlinson insists that these are not simple re-creations of campy, melodramatic stock roles from the annals of entertainment history. “It’s difficult for women,” says Tomlinson. “When Joan Crawford goes bananas in the classic hag horror film Strait Jacket and hacks her way through the scenery and the characters, she is working her ass off as a serious actress contained within a decidedly campy role.

 “I love women so I never loved the term fag hag. I prefer gal pals for my friends, but for these movies there is something powerful in those words. I don’t feel it’s demeaning. The weird power they have is part of the term hag, and they are able to embrace and transform into something else.”

Expressing a concern for the imbalance in gender perceptions between the sexes, Tomlinson asks important questions about the representation of women. “Why did it take [the success of] American Horror Story and Grey Gardens to remind us that Jessica Lange is a great actress? The horror of aging is projected onto women yet men remain handsome and debonair. Men are the rational ones. Women are driven crazy by deceit, aging, whatever.”

And Gash has the entire cast taking the hag horror genre very seriously. Tomlinson, as writer and cast member explains: “We’re not trying to camp it up, that’s the audience’s job.” As two sisters battle it out on the anniversary of a mysterious family death, eerie puppets, dashing doctors and befuddled neighbours waltz in and out of murderous intrigue. A character from Gash epitomizes the way in which the hag horror genre transforms, at a moment’s notice, from camp intrigue into effective social commentary regarding the status of women.

An excerpt from the play sums it up best: “Do you think it was easy? Do you think a woman finds that kind of courage in any old place? You have to go to the cold dark reaches of the human heart to find that special kind of fortitude. You have to be able to reach past all the razor-sharp doubts in the human mind to be able to find that degree of strength.”

Gash promises to be a wild and crazy ride of good filthy, campy fun, and most assuredly a titillating murderous treat.

On a more soul-searching and serious note, exploring aspects of aboriginal identity and male sexuality, T. Berto’s Row looks at the world of the kept boy. It already played at Edmonton’s Loud and Queer Festival under the direction of Ed Roy. But for  Summerworks, Cole Alvis, utilized his Métis heritage to further develop the script.

Gifted singer and performer Dillon Chiblow takes on the lead role of Sonny. Fresh from his powerful performance as the queer cowardly Lion in Darren Stewart-Jone’s Emerald  City—a clever and charming take on The Wizard of Oz at last month’s Fringe Festival—Chiblow is joined by Billy Merasty, Jani Lauzon and Brandon Oakes.

The queerness of the script, according to Berto, lies within the specific context of marginalized relationships. Says Berto: “While kept boys are found in both hetero and homo narratives, kept boys in the queer world can include and devolve into far more aberrant or marginal relationships. As youth wanes and their value declines, their primary asset can often be their willingness to endure, to be traded, to be punished… to ‘take’ what their keepers ‘give.’”

Row examines the psychology of how power is maintained across a relationship where one man “owns” another. “This power dynamic,” says Berto, “resonates with all sorts of queer relationships, especially where partners are from diverse backgrounds and have different levels of agency.” Row is a powerful interrogation of the ways  in which sexual relations can become enmeshed with particular identities and life experiences.


A side of summerworks: Romance, perversion and a mermaid.

A Quiet Sip of Coffee (or, this is not the play we’ve written)
Created by Anthony Johnston and Nathan Schwartz with Anita Rochon
In 2004, Anthony Johnston and Nathan Schwartz—self-proclaimed gay/straight best friends duo—wrote a prank letter to a fundamentalist “ex-gay” organization asking for funds to produce their play Never Cry Wolfman. To their surprise, the letter was answered and they were invited to workshop the show at the group’s retreat in rural British Columbia under the condition they spend two weeks participating in gay conversion therapy. Years later, the friends reunite to tell their story as a piece of theatre. The result is part docu-theatre, atonement ritual, melodrama, exorcism and half-mask musical.

Fuck You! You Fucking Perv!
Created by Leslie Baker
A solo performance, Fuck You! You Fucking Perv! is an erratic immersion into the psychological damage caused by mature sexualization. It bombards the senses with shocking imagery, invasive sound score, tap dancing and tasteless jokes. Combining elements of performance art and visual theatre, Fuck You dissects one night in the life of a woman who struggles against forces real and imagined. Enter a world of destructive energy, surging forth in search of meaning in the irrational, illogical exploration of sexual predation.

Sea Foam Blue 3
Created by Wives
All-woman performance trio Wives lead you deep into the uncanny with the oceanic enchantment of Sea Foam Blue 3. In Trinity Bellwoods park, a real-life mermaid anxiously awaits a worthy partner. But finding love, sex and respect can be complicated when you’re a hybrid being. Does Tinder even work underwater? Sea Foam Blue 3 touches upon everything from ocean fetish fandom and internet dating to their own slumber party secrets to flesh out the anti-romance and eventual existential peace of a lonely mermaid.

Created by Cliff Cardinal
Dave and Madly are hopelessly in love with being hopelessly in love. Dave, the drug and sex-addicted fraudster, and Madly, the bulimic, klepto chef, have become needy and selfish. Enter the spark that ignites the flame: Rochelle, the transgendered crack addict fighting to clean up. When Dave and Madly break up (and get back together), and Madly dubiously announces she’s pregnant, Dave careens into Rochelle and the two begin the most enveloping love affair since cocaine met baking soda.

summerworks. Aug 7-17. Various venues. summerworks.ca