So, I looked up the etymology of the word “normal”. In classical Latin “made according to a carpenter’s square, from norma – rule, pattern”. “Conforming to common standards or established order.”
Meaning “heterosexual” by 1914.
Next was “prejudice”. “Despite, contempt. Injury and physical harm. Judicial examination before trial”.
Bearfoot Theatre’s latest two act full length production DO YOUR PARENTS KNOW YOU’RE STRAIGHT written and directed by Riley McLean, with assistant director Harry Liddiard, thematically addresses both these words.
Initially produced and presented by Eclectic Productions in May 2017, non-binary Riley has reworked the original script, coming at it from a post marriage equality debate that was raging at the time of the original production.They have kept the “angsty teenage stuff”, even though Riley admits it was cringy to leave in, feeling it was “truthful and necessary”. Let’s face it – most teenagers suffer from self-image and identity issues at some stage. The difference here is that the core protagonist, Casey (Samuel Jenkins) is not “carpenter square”. Casey is a straight guy, a “breeder” in a homosexual world.
Riley has taken the theatrical conceit of upending the “normal” whereby families are headed by either two dads or two mums and everyone is expected to fall in love with and marry people of their own biological sex. To be straight or a “breeder” is cause for horror and social isolation. Girls like girls and boys like boys.
I know, I know, gender identification is more complex, but that’s not what is at this core of this production. It is touched upon at the beginning when a variety of people using various personal pronouns and identifying as trans, cis homosexual etc introduce themselves via video and proclaim themselves “Proud to be me”. Perhaps Riley will explore gender identity more fully in another play, given that the company is the Hunter Region’s leading LGBTQIA+ Theatre Company and that Riley is proving to be an adept playwright giving voice to that community.
Back to the story. Casey’s best friend, Jamie (Luke Barker), is expected by all, including Casey’s dads, to become Casey’s boyfriend and eventually husband, but Casey is secretly smitten by a girl on the bus that he calls Willow (Mei Takawira).
To further complicate things, Casey wants to be a writer. In this world, writing is a risky career. “Go on Broadway, that’s where the money is!” He is writing a story of a girl named Riley (Annie McLoughlin) who is gay in a straight world and who has also fallen for Willow.
Riley is Casey in a straight world and this created character is an alter ego; his way of managing and controlling his own situation when he knows he is so desperately at odds with the rest of the world.
This world that Casey is writing becomes real for us as well and is enacted in parallel and contrast as we not only jump from Casey to Riley but also see the two constantly interacting about their dilemmas and relationship battles. It’s another theatrical conceit and an interesting porthole into the world of a writer, particularly when the control of the narrative is seemingly wrenched away from Casey by Riley.
In both worlds 12-year-old little sister Caitlyn (Ava Mantle) acts as a faithful and drily witty sibling, open and free from the prejudice infecting the others.
We are taken on a strong emotional journey and there are some powerful moments of real raw emotion as well as slapstick and satirical humour and even loving digs at stereotypes on both sides of the coin as the themes of conforming to the norm, coming out to family and friends, betrayal, expectations and prejudice are explored.
It’s surprisingly powerful. When Casey finally presents his Riley story to others, including to his initially supportive and encouraging English teacher, Miss Jenkins at school, their responses are punches in the gut full of betrayal and hate.
There’s some real acting chops present in this production. Samuel Jenkins as Casey is contained yet emotionally raw when needed while Annie McLoughlin as Riley is mercurial; delightfully awkward then painfully wounded and distressed, sliding up and down the range of emotional states like an accomplished pianist on their scales. Her moments with the charismatic Mei Takawira as Willow are sometimes pure empathy.
Ava Mantle as Caitlyn has excellent comic timing and an emotional maturity beyond her years. Luke Barker as Jamie made me laugh but also broke my heart. His pain is palpable.
Zac Smith and Carl Gregory as the Dads are a wonderful comic duo that become a dry tinderbox of emotional explosives later in the play. Angela McKeown as Miss Jenkins his teacher, as well as the Mum in Riley’s world, nails every moment. She’s good.
The catalytic character of Tyler, the one who forces everything out into the open in both worlds through his own swaggering, bullying sexuality, is adeptly portrayed by Nick Thoroughgood. And indeed, like Angela, he is.
Another character in this production is the set! Designed by Lyndon Buckley, Harry Liddiard and Riley McLean, small chalkboards with simple drawings of things like doors, a goldfish, no smoking sign, a clock as well as words such as English, Door and so on are held up by the various members of the cast to denote changes of space. At times they are animated, for example, the door character spinning as as another enters or exits that space. It keeps all the cast on stage and moves the action forward at a pace.
My favourite is a party scene when all the chalkboards are moving to the music and then break out into dance. Carl Gregory’s “Art” is a hoot.
It’s fun and very clever and so efficient for set changes. A fold out sofa bed, a raised platform, a few bits of fabric and some wonderful lighting by the very experienced and talented Lyndon Buckley, projections by Ben Mitchell and soundscape by Matthew Hudson and Riley McLean complete the multifunctional design.
Bearfoot Theatre is “a diverse collective of young theatre practitioners who are carving their own paths and creating original experimental work from the ground up with no rules. Bearfoot has a mission to keep contemporary work alive by producing predominantly original works which challenge audiences, tackle relevant social issues and give a voice to young and diverse artists.”
And amen to that.
Second photo : L-R Annie McLoughlin as Riley, Samuel Jenkins as Casey, Mei Takawira as Willow Samuel Jenkins as Casey. Final performance of DO YOUR PARENTS KNOW YOU’RE STRAIGHT? at the Civic Playhouse, 375 Hunter Street, Newcastle is Friday 19 February at 7.30pm.
Limited seating availability but some house seats may be made available if you contact the Civic Theatre Box Office on 4929 1977.
Featured image : Samuel Jenkins