Saturday, November 30, 2013

Discrimination in Drama: Persevering Some Playwrights

Philip Doherty's The Circus of Perseverance for the Gonzo Theatre Company (Smock Alley Theatre until Nov 30) makes jokes of the disenfranchised. 

There is a scene in The Circus of Perseverance by Philip Doherty - a comedy that brings the misfits of Dublin's economic misfortune into the circus ring (Smock Alley Theatre until Nov 30) - where a taxi driver laments the loss of Ireland's great artists. "Even Brendan Behan", he says, "and he had the face of a melted arse".

His face aside, Behan can remind us of how, by nature, playwrights are deeply politicised beings. The Borstal Boy author found the discipline to write only while he was imprisoned for his Republican extremism, and the tragic love story between the British soldier and the Irish convent girl in The Hostage suggests a deep understanding of political violence. Samuel Beckett worked as a courier with the French Resistance and his drama is hollowed by the bombs of WWII. And today companies such as Brokentalkers, ANU Productions and THEATREclub are incredibly involved with political issues.

What are the politics of playwright Philip Doherty then, as he refers to one of the living statue performers on Grafton Street as a "fairy"? There is nothing feminine to be suggested by the appearance of the actor Rex Ryan, who imitates the street performers with great comedy. The writer seems to be drawing on the term's homophobic function, as he continues to charmingly turn homoeroticism into a recurring punchline throughout. We see an employee made uncomfortable when his male employer acts sexual around him. And when a debt collector tells his boss that their client was "out", he responds: "Out? Out in the George dancing in drag?". It's outrageously offensive. Everyone knows that if you want good drag you go to Panti Bar.

This is a tired joke where Doherty is concerned. In reviewing his 2011 play Murder On Main Street (his funniest play so far) I was disturbed by one moment when a character elicited laughs from the audience by acting homoerotic. I decided not to let that one slip tarnish my analysis of what was a strong comedy.

But The Circus of Perseverance is a joke, and now Doherty's throwing darts at every one outside the rural heterosexual Irish male hegemony. Immigrants are mocked, female characters are thinly written and mostly domestic demons, and, most insensitively, is the depiction of those homeless and suffering from addiction. The hero of the piece? A male misfit who is continuously thwarted by the females in his life. 

The only subject which Doherty manages to satirise successfully is the urban. A humorous scene acted by Cara Christie sees a woman try to evade a Luas ticket inspector. Another scene comically captures the drunken debauchery of Templebar, including an absurdly amusing portrait of the experimental theatre scene. It's good fun, until an actor in this avant garde meltdown stands up and declares: "I'm gay". 


Ironically, one of these experimental and testimonial plays, which Doherty must feel some distaste for if to ridicule it so, took place this week, and in an opposing slot to boot. A performance really about perseverance, Marcus Magdalena's Unicorn With a Cape took to the stage in the Fumbally Cafe on Thursday. This is the Canadian-born performer's real-life story of having lived as a straight woman and then homosexual, transgender, until finally genderless.  

Marcus Magdalena's Unicorn With a Cape: a true story of perseverance.

"I struggled to connect with anybody for a long time". Extraordinarily, the distance between performer and spectator seems instantly bridged as the modest Marcus Magdalena, with a loving demeanour, unfolds a brave story. We hear heartbreaking accounts of violence committed against the performer as a child and as an adult. What purpose does a gender-segregated world serve a woman who identifies as a man? Which public restroom do you use for a start?

Decimated by drugs and depression until caught in the loving arms of a mermaid dancer, Unicorn With a Cape can be really affecting. Dancer Tara Brandel's sweet motions at the end adorns an intimacy between women that is rarely seen. It's these hidden forms of beauty that are kept in the dark by a world divided by two distinct genders.  

On one hand, we have the politics of one playwright to reinforce barriers in society, to stabilise inequality and make jokes of the disenfranchised. On the other, we have a motion to dissolve differences, to identify not according to gender but to the almost magical quality within a person to love. The tagline of Philip Doherty's play is: "Reality is more absurd than art". This has always been true but sometimes art can make hope and peace out of that reality.  

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