2boys.tv – Tightrope

2boys.tv video still from TIGHTROPE, House of Bogue performers.

 

Anyone who has followed the career of 2boys.tv (Stephen Lawson and Aaron Pollard) over the course of the past decade or so will not be surprised that their most recent show, a song cycle called Tightrope, blends an ambitious range of genres in a feature-length performance. It’s an avant-garde cabaret, it’s a variety of text-based forms including spoken word, a cappella and instrumental compositions that make up the song cycle; along with the heightened spectacle of public and performative mourning, site-specific installation, cosmonautology, audience intervention / participation; as well as intermedial components, including silhouette performance, projection art, costume drama, strip tease, radical drag, and the daring combination of professional and amateur talent. In less fabulously capable hands, this blend of so many technologies of “show” might produce one big mess, but in the hands of Lawson, Pollard and their collaborators, Tightrope walks the tense line between chaos and order, giving a performance that left me breathless, thrown and then re-collected, enchanted and deeply moved. 

 

As a performance in fifteen parts, Tightrope develops from an introductory greeting performed by Montreal-based daredevil Alexis O’Hara as host / funeral director. O’Hara’s exceptional prowess as a performer and MC are put to excellent use here and her role throughout the show functions as it should: to hold apparently disparate elements together, to introduce new elements into the performance, to interact with the other cast members and to coach and reassure the audience that everything is going to be okay. Or, at least that we’re all in good hands even if we are all going to die. Seeing O’Hara in this collaborative role reinforces for me what a powerhouse performer she is; she shifts from earnest grief manager, to subtle hostess, to the discotheque fag hag DJ, to chanteuse, to handmaiden of the surreal, to restrained accompanist. Her role as part of the ensemble isn’t overpowering as one might expect from such a solo superstar, but, rather, she allows the audience to feel well-held, or guided, throughout. Her delivery of an opening monologue on the less-reassuring aspects of the life-death cycle is all things a cabaret monologue should be: a bit screwball with excellent timing. Indeed, I think this could be said of the whole show, and O’Hara’s is pitch-perfect.

 

While Tightrope, overall, has a somber tone and might most accurately be subtitled Memento Mori, its unpredictability keeps the audience continually challenged and reminds me a bit of a large family wake: everyone is simultaneously out of control and on their best behaviour.

 

Perhaps one of the most radical aspects of Tightrope is its investment in local drag scenes, especially in the radical drag that is less interested in female impersonation as it is in fucking with the lines between male and female / masculine and feminine, high art / disco trash. The rotating chorus of drag queen mourners who enter the scene hysterically wailing and flailing like the professional grievers they are, flank the stage, pose, assist and ultimately conclude the performance are, well, remarkable in many senses. The second time I saw the show, I was with a friend who found the amateur quality of the younger queens’ performances distracting; they are a volatile and unwieldy presence, especially in contrast to the studied and dignified stillness of Lawson’s The Widow—a character that I will return to in a moment. Part of the politics of Tightrope are a politics of what I’m just going to go ahead and call ‘intergenerationality’; the 2boys have invited emerging drag performers to be part of the show (even, in some instances, to steal the show!) as a way to mentor younger gay artists who are not necessarily part of the ‘mainstream’ of drag, to bring local audiences to the show to see the local queens—who all have a loyal and loving fan-base of their own—and thus create new networks of affinity across generations. As a show that remembers the ‘lost generation’ of gay men who have died from AIDS and HIV-related illnesses, Tighrope insists on a queer genealogy; by remembering the dead and by insisting on the affective, aesthetic and political connections between generations of drag queens and, more broadly, between gay men, the show keeps us alive to the ways that we are compelled into forgetting diversely queer histories.

 

Stephen Lawson’s performance of The Widow is, like his performances of so many dames before, intricately stunning. The Widow’s finely tuned gestures, her attenuated strip-tease (removing the many layers of a mourning costume designed by Sarah Doucet, like one peels away layers of grief), and three subdued monologues, all draw us into the themes of memory and forgetting. She asks us “Is it better to be the man with no memory, or the woman who remembers everything?”  The contrast between The Widow’s stillness and the fidgety professional mourners who flank her, draws attention to all movement on stage: in a Brechtian turn, Tightrope never lets the audience succumb to the scene, nor to ever forget that this is A SHOW. This is not Aristotelian theatre with a unity of form, time or place; it explodes unity in favour of harmonious cacophony. 

 

The show’s musical elements—including the work of Radwan Ghazi Moumneh and Aaron Pollard, who exists only in silhouette until the closing scene when he emerges as The Widow’s towering twin from behind the projection screen constructed of local newspapers—reminded me of a state funeral; and I could imagine a discrete hymn list posted in front of a cathedral altar, facing a row of polished pews. While the audience is never allowed to relax into a narrative arc in Tightrope, the music keeps us immersed in its shadowy sad beautiful world.

 

The discordant episodes of Tightrope extract an audience from a comfortable night at the theatre. That is, as spectator-participants in this protracted and sometimes distracted ritual, we are invited to consider the productive tension—the dialectic, really—between everything that is happening on stage and all the ways that these scenes reach off the stage and ask us to connect them to our own existences and to our own deaths. We’re not supposed to understand it, I think, and to a large part Tightrope functions most effectively on the level of affect: we feel it, and thus deeply know it, even if we can’t quite put our finger on what is going on. 

Buddies in Bad Times Theatre May 26-June 5

2boys.tv video still from TIGHTROPE, Johnston Newfield performer.
2boys.tv video still from TIGHTROPE, Johnston Newfield performer.
2boys.tv video still from TIGHTROPE, Johnston Newfield performer.