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Fortune and Men's Eyes: sex and violence at 50 - Drew Rowsome - 416 Scene - MyGayToronto

Fortune and Men's Eyes: sex and violence at 50

25 December 2017



"I hope people who know the play come see it and have an excuse to think about it again," says director Brian Waters of Fortune and Men's Eyes. "I hope people who don't know the play come see it and think about it for the first time" Set in a men's prison and featuring a violent rape, Fortune and Men's Eyes is also a fervent and intense 1967 cri de coeur for gay rights. 

"I remember thinking it was a cool coincidence that the 50th anniversary of Canada's most published play would be the same year as what some view as Canada's 150th birthday," says Waters. "I was a little disappointed that this milestone was pretty much forgotten by everyone and how relatively obscure playwright John Herbert is. As a queer Toronto playwright, it's discouraging to think that you can have the most published play in the country but still be mostly forgotten about. This is my gift to John Herbert's ghost."

There is another reason that Fortune and Men's Eyes is, despite roles actors would kill for, is rarely produced. "Each of the characters in this play is a beast," says Waters. "They're fully fleshed out and each of them has a trajectory. The emotional depth that an actor has to have in order to play these characters well, forces them to flex all their muscles. It's also an especially physical play. The play forces actors to be both completely vulnerable and robust, while staying physically committed. It's also written for young actors, so to find people who are relatively new to the craft to play these characters well is a challenge."

Fortunately Waters has assembled a cast up to the challenge. "They're all incredibly talented. I've directed Graham Parkhurst twice before and I knew he would handle Queenie well. It's such a larger-than-life character and I think people will be really surprised by his portrayal. It was watching him as Rocky in my production of The Rocky Horror Show that sold me. During the floor show, he was given the opportunity to really ham it up and I remember thinking how dark his camp and humour was in that moment."

Waters also has star power on his side with Bruce Dow (PigOf a Monstrous Child: A Gaga MusicalDora Awards hostThank You For Being a Friend) and Paolo Santalucia (MustardThe Taming of the ShrewThe Goat, or Who is Sylvia?) in the cast. "Bruce was the first person cast," says Waters "I approached him because I've been a huge fan for years and even five years ago when I started thinking about a production of the play, he was the only person I had in my head to play the Guard. I was lucky enough to work with Paolo in a production of Hamlet. He's so smart and intense. It was watching him in Armstrong's War that made me instantly cast him as the brooding and angry Rocky. I think he'll melt faces."

Colton Curtis is new to Waters orbit, while George Krissa is familiar. "I remember thinking I would like to work with him when I saw him in A Chorus Line at Stratford. He has a natural innocence about him without being naive or weak. Mona is the strongest character in the play and it's tricky to show this quiet strength on stage. George sort of exploded onto the scene this year. He's everywhere. He won the Bank's Prize and was cast as a lead in his first season at Stratford. He's also my boyfriend and I am fortunate enough to help him audition prep . . . a lot. Technically he auditioned, like, 300 times in my living room without even knowing it. Smitty has the largest character arc in the play. It's a massive development and George has both the vulnerability and the strength needed to take us on the journey. I really wanted my dream cast for this piece and I am so lucky that I got it."

The first Toronto production of Fortune and Men's Eyes was notorious for its nudity and violence, the latest also relied heavily on the selling power of nubile male flesh. "The cast of this production is unbelievably attractive," agrees Waters, "but more importantly they're powerhouse actors performing the shit out of an important play. I think using male flesh cheapens the play. Herbert was always against nudity and setting the rape scenes in view of the audience. One of the earliest productions, directed by Sal Mineo, introduced nudity at every turn. It's not in the text of the play and works to distract audiences from what is happening to these characters on a much deeper level while discrediting the actors by relying on their sensationalized sexuality. Its difficult to digest the complete disintegration of four men with their genitals in your face."

Following the staged reading there is a panel discussion also featuring some heavy duty provocateurs of the theatre and gay communities: playwright Brad Fraser, Sky Gilbert (Sad Old FaggotIt's All Tru (A Play About AIDS)My Dinner with Casey DonovanTo Sky Gilbert at 60, to list the most recent) and queer theatre professor Paul Halferty. "I picked these panelists because they're people I'm genuinely interested in learning from," says Waters. "They also scare me. These people are my heroes and they all know this play like the back of their hand. I'm incredibly humbled  - and will most likely be more humbled - by them. I'm not sure what to expect. I suppose that's the theatre of it. I certainly don't expect a lovefest. I don't think that's their style. I'm just hoping for an intelligent, mind-opening, tactful conversation. I also trust Rebecca Burton's moderating skills to keep us all in line."

While the panel, being activists as well as artists, are well-versed in the reality of Herbert's vision, Waters and the cast bring a generational difference. "In talking to the actors about the play, each of them was shocked that this was how gay men were treated in Canada just 50 years ago. It's a sobering reminder that Canada wasn't always as gay-positive as it is now and I hope it makes people question how much more growing this country still has to do. The play was truly ahead of it's time and it amazes people that it's as old as it is. Mr. Trudeau very recently acknowledged and apologized for the abominable treatment of the queer community in our country's past - exactly what this play addressed right in the eye of the storm. How's that for timing?"

The Fortune and Men's Eyes staged reading and panel discussion is on Monday, December 11 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St. buddiesinbadtimes.com 

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