Full Frontal Diva
by Donn Short
Presented at La Cite Francophone
February 13 to 21, 2015
Jesse Gervais, Aaron Talbot, Eric Wigston, and Walker Lee
Directed by Wayne Paquette
Production Managed by Trent Crosby
Sound Design by Sydney Gross
Lighting Design by Kevin Humphrey
Costume Design by Megan Koshka mkoshka.com
Set Design by Daniela Masellis
Technical Director Erik Martin
Photographs by Mat Simpson Photography http://matsimpson.co/
Poster by Tynan Boyd and Joel Crichton
Tommy, Jimmy, and Kenny: three very different men from the same small town, where in 1969 a young boy was murdered. All three are troubled; all three have a lot of secrets, and all three are ensnared in a mystery that will build and unravel over twenty years. As they deal with the truth of what happened and its effects on them, Full Frontal Diva examines attitudes towards homosexuality, shame, and violence. A dark psychological piece filled with wry commentary, touching closeness, and brutal honesty, FFD captures the claustrophobia and bigotry of small town life. It exposes a tragic world of sexual secrets and desires as Donnie’s childhood friends unearth what they know about themselves, each other, and ultimately about Donnie, the long dead ‘queer kid’. Full Frontal Diva is a Canadian play by Winnipeg’s Donn Short.
THE EDMONTON JOURNAL – Liz Nicholls
What really gets under your skin about Full Frontal Diva, the dark Donn Short play launching the Blarney Productions season, is the way a moment can stop time and change everything. Forever. That’s what it means to be haunted, I guess. Memory may be a magic kingdom, where the past is a creation and you are your own architect. But guilt is its own planet. Wayne Paquette’s production, with its three powerful performances that intertwine only as we figure out the mysterious way they’re knotted, takes us there. In Daniela Maselis’s lovely design, a wooden disk seems to float in a starry sky, with a single glowing window and a vent. It’s an open-sided chamber where the present never recedes into the past. That’s where we find the characters, three haunted men we meet separately, each with a story to tell that’s not always the same as the story they less consciously reveal. They’re from the same small town, a world of rumour, malice, bigotry and respectable viciousness. And they each know the queer kid we never meet in person, Donny, a doomed outsider who drowned as a 14-year-old. They come at us differently, too. In the first of three monologues — and in some ways the most artificially “poetic” as written — we meet Donny’s big brother Tommy (Eric Wigston) soon after the fateful event. At 16, infuriated by the small-town limitations of his family and neighbours — “an undertow I can’t fight, even as it takes your air” — he’s a troubled figure. “Truth is served in this house with death.” In Wigston’s agile but tense performance as a character who’s stalled before he’s even fully formed — which is, I take it, the gist of his heightened language — regrets and grief flicker across the hard surfaces of Tommy’s prejudices and bounce back at him. He’s a volatile mixture of accusation and self-loathing, looking for an ally. That’s where we come in. Jimmy, an aggressive and gleeful skinhead in boots, taunts us from a prison cell. Played with unnerving, swaggering scariness by Aaron Talbot, making a welcome return to the stage, he’s a veritable poster-boy for the toxic nature of denial and repressed sexuality, and not much of an advertisement for the nuclear family or Bible study either. The third, Kenny (Jesse Gervais), home for the first time in a decade, brings the spirit of flamboyant showbiz with him as he gets into drag. The charismatic Gervais captures not only the professional, teasing, flirty playfulness of the character, but hints of a mysterious sadness. Kenny is a knowing and genuinely tragic figure, who lives in the zone well beyond self-pity, where making-the-best-of-it happens. “A moment, please, for my lost youth,” he says wryly, and adds instantly, “that’s enough!” He knows what he’s lost: love. And as Full Frontal Diva tells us in its intricate, sometimes over-intricate way — via a murder mystery — love is in tough against small-town prejudice and the spirit of conformity.
AFTER THE HOUSE LIGHTS – Jenna Marynowski
Full Frontal Diva is a story of hope buried in a cloud of mysterious and painful darkness. A series of direct address monologues spanning 20 years, Full Frontal Diva gives the brother, best friend, and next door neighbour of Donnie Gallagher (a gay teenage boy who has not so mysteriously drowned in a lake) the chance to explain their relationship with the deceased. One by one the actors take the stage and tell the story of where they’re at now with their life – brother Tommy (Eric Wigston) a few days after his brother’s “accident”, friend Jimmy (Aaron Talbot) ten years after it, and neighbour Kenny (Jesse Gervais) twenty years after the event. While the story reveals the circumstances around Donnie’s death bit-by-bit, Full Frontal Diva is ultimately Kenny’s story of surviving sexual violence, stigmas and narrow-minded thinking.
VUE WEEKLY – Bruce Cinnamon
“Everyone’s down there talking about Donnie, writing and rewriting family history: who he was and who he never was.”
So proclaims Eric Wigston in the opening moments of Full Frontal Diva, a show where the layered narrative begins as middle-class Canadiana cliché and gradually evolves into something more heartfelt and harrowing.
The one-act play (which runs for about two hours) is structured as three extended monologues, each of which writes and rewrites the story of Donnie Gallagher—a gay teen whose mysterious death becomes more complicated with each subsequent narrator.
We’re given a large stage with a small platform, which—whether it functions as a teenager’s bedroom, a hotel room or an actual jail cell—feels like a prison where our three actors are trapped. They prowl around the confined space to animate their words, but the physical restriction means that our engagement depends chiefly on their storytelling abilities.
Although earnestly and energetically delivered, the first monologue—featuring Wigston as Donnie’s older brother—can’t escape the familiar, aw-shucks tones of a Stuart McLean Vinyl Café story. Aaron Talbot’s performance as a convict is frantic and disturbingly jolly, and his sly slinking around the limited space makes him seem like a caged animal.
But it’s only when we come to Jesse Gervais’ turn as a drag queen returning to her childhood home that the show’s presentational style really starts to pay off. Gervais develops a bantering rapport with the audience early on, and he keeps us enthralled even as his revelations get more and more outlandish. Delivering most of his lines in a silky purr, Gervais’ monologue resolves the slow-boiling mystery of Donnie’s drowning and ties together the narrative threads that the other scenes have left dangling.
Although it has its flaws (like frequently stereotypical writing or strange staging decisions, like a creepy child lurking around the edges of some scenes), Full Frontal Diva succeeds on the conviction of its actors. It tells a timely story of non-conformity and the lengths we’ll go to cover it up, whether through violence or rewriting our own deepest memories.
THE EDMONTON JOURNAL – Liz Nicholls
Full Frontal Diva opens Blarney Productions gritty, raw season
If there ever was a theatre company that deliberately, blithely, decisively, doesn’t live up to its name, it’s Blarney Productions.
It’s not in whimsy that Edmonton’s much-awarded indie troupe has made its name since birth, nine years ago. Far from it. It’s in the gritty, raw reaches of the repertoire, the dark side where the intense, probing, emotionally complex plays live. The show that opens Blarney’s first official season Friday at La Cité francophone, and gets its Canadian première to boot, is one of those.
As Blarney’s soft-spoken artistic director Wayne Paquette explains, Full Frontal Diva: the Forgotten History of a Dead Queer, by Winnipeg lawyer-turned-playwright Donn Short, is really a triptych. “Three troubled guys from the same small town, looking back in time over 20 years,” says Paquette of the trio of monologues that are the infrastructure of Full Frontal Diva. “Each ‘play’ tells its own story; put together they tell one story.” At the heart of that story is a mystery, “a tragic event that haunts the characters in different ways in each story, and has changed their lives forever,” says Paquette. “They’ve all made choices that sacrifice their truer selves; they’ve had big dreams they’ve had to squash.”
Paquette, a premier stage manager before he started directing — a career that continues in parallel to his directing — was attracted by these intricacies when he discovered Full Frontal Diva. It’s very Blarney, he says of the play, which is to say “bold but not quite in your face, dark and with dark humour … and secrets.” Curiously, it premièred in England and has never had a full Canadian production.
There’s something a bit True Crime about it, he says. “These are people who have been hurt and are covering up. The choices they make are so raw; we can say the worst of the worst in private. They’re trying to be normal. But when does something perverse become the new normal?”
Questions like that, questions for grown-ups, are meat and drink to Paquette, who made his directorial debut, and co-founded Blarney (with John Sproule) with a 2006 Fringe production of Brian Friel’s heartbreaking Afterplay. The Fringe isn’t the usual repository for that kind of nuance. It was followed by such thorny productions as Craig Wright’s Orange Flower Water, a tense and alarming exploration of the effect of adultery on two couples. And Skirmishes, a fraught encounter between two sisters at their mother’s deathbed.
The list is long, distinguished, and Sterling Award-studded (eight wins, 15 nominations): no sitcoms, no musicals. Most recently, Fringe audiences saw Blarney’s explosive revival of 3 … 2 … 1, the Nathan Cuckow/Chris Craddock tragicomedy about a couple of stalled Prairie lads bandaging their emotional wounds with an epic bender in a Wetaskiwin garage.
The other Blarney productions of the 2015 season will have their dark, dangerous, secretive side, too, as Paquette explains. Mote, by Toronto-based José Teodoro, sets a cast of seven forth into a thriller world of pursuit inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. “Film noir elements, David Lynch deviations,” says Paquette, of the play. “Characters watch film footage of themselves …”
The Blarney season finale will be Keith Huff’s A Steady Rain, which arrived on Broadway in 2009 from Chicago featuring Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman in a classic cop buddy setup: two contrastive Chi-town beat cops make a serious mistake and go dangerously off-book. Paquette has acquired two of Edmonton’s most exciting leading men — John Ullyatt and Jesse Gervais — for his production.
VUE WEEKLY – Paul Blinov
Darkness on the edge of town
Full Frontal Diva seeks to shine a light into deep, psychological territory
‘I love theatre with consequence,” Wayne Paquette states, grinning. “Where something is seriously going to change, and it’s not always good. It’s not always a happy ending or, ‘We’ll work it out.’” The director can certainly back that statement up with his CV: during the years Paquette’s been co-running Blarney Productions with John Sproule, the scripts he’s selected have frequently skewed deep into the darkness, from Orange Flower Water’s acidic look at relationships in wilt to, most recently, a Fringe production of Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow’s 3…2…1 and its damaged young men. Consequences-for-actions have always been paramount to the stories Blarney’s brought to the stage, and the company’s also been handily rewarded for its focus with acclaim: 15 Sterling nominations and eight wins since 2006. It’s also been a while since we heard from Blarney in the main season: the company co-produced a pair of shows in 2013, Murielle (with Promise Productions) and Age of Arousal (with the Maggie Tree), but 2014 was silent outside the Fringe. Then, out of the quiet, Blarney suddenly drops a three-show season into the next four months: May brings both the Psycho-inspired Mote and the bad-cops-bad-situation dynamic of Steady Rain. But first up is Full Frontal Diva, a dark, psychological mystery that spreads itself across three minds in a trio of monologues. Each one is connected by the same grim death of a young man in a small town—the second part of the title reads the forgotten history of a dead queer—and each speaker feels its ripple effects from a different time and place, spanning 20 years. “I don’t think any of these characters walk away unscathed, or walk away without big wounds that sometimes will never heal,” Paquette says, cheerily. Seated across from him, Eric Wigston, one of the show’s three actors, nods his agreement. “There’s no real sugar-coating in this show,” Wigston says. “It’s straight up—this is how these people are feeling. And we’re gonna tell you about it whether you like it or not.” For his role, Wigston notes such a sustained monologue to be an actorly endurance run. “Your brain doesn’t stop working,” Wigston says. “I found [that] after a couple of weeks when we just did a lot of table work, after sitting for even three hours, talking through it, reading through it once, I was exhausted. My brain was full.” Even though Wigston and his fellow castmates Aaron Talbot and Jesse Gervais are all alone on stage, Full Frontal isn’t quite as minimist as it sounds: the monologues are adorned with theatrical convention—costumes, settings—and they’re being directed specifically at the audience that’s present night-of. “We acknowledge that they’re there watching us,” Wigston continues. “That’s a different dynamic than a regular one-man show where it’s just get up and tell a story. It’s get up and tell a story—but are you listening?”
This Blarney production marks the Canadian première of Full Frontal Diva, despite it being a Canadian script. It was written by Winnipeg-based Donn Short, who, for his part, had almost given up on seeing another staging of Full Frontal Diva. He’s in town for rehearsals, particularly stoked about tech day, of all things—”That’s the fun part, that’s where you can contribute, and where all the important decisions are made”—and explaining its history: back in the early 2000s, Short entered the script, which had originated as a sole monologue, into an international writing competition for plays with LGBTQ themes. It was one of two winners, which led to a reading, where it was picked up for a London, UK run. Despite that buzz, getting Full Frontal produced back home proved more difficult than expected. “A couple of theatres in New York contact me, and a couple of Canadian theatres read the show,” he recalls, sitting in a cafe in the La Cité building. “It was very frustrating for me, because a number of them would say—this is a little hard to say about my own stuff, but—this is a beautiful play, it’s nicely written, but we can’t do it. It might offend our subscribers. Too edgy.” The script’s genesis, he notes, pulled from a few different places: a playwright friend told Short he didn’t do monologues, which, for Short, seemed like a challenge; he’d been thinking of writing an atypical sort of revenge play; plus there were a few other, more constant, thematic concerns. “Something that’s in a lot of my work is how people deal with grief in particular, and how you move on with that, if you can,” he adds. “And just memories in general: how memories shape us. That’s a theme that animates my work: that we drag our pasts with us. That we are what we remember.” In exploring all of that through monologues, as opposed to multi-character scenes, Short found the one-actor-on-stage format to be effective in delving deep into the mind. “The monologue allows you to really find the character,” Short says. “You have a real sense of who they are beyond what’s said … Even when you’re dealing with characters who’ve done despicable things, because I’m putting myself in their position, I’m trying to think, well, how did they get here and what’s happened to them? Thinking in terms of monologues, speaking as that person encourages that.” That all three characters find themselves at a particular crossroads was, Paquette notes, part of what drew him in. “I’m just so fascinated with the moments and the choices we make where we start to go from a child or a young boy to becoming a man,” he says. “The hard, rocky road from getting from that point to the next point is really fascinating to me. So that was a huge element for me: these characters, and their desire or reluctance to change.” That it shines a light into a deep, psychological darkness probably didn’t hurt, either, given how those depths fit snug with the other shows Paquette was considering for the company. “This is who we are, this is our voice,” Paquette states of the season at hand. Then, a smile breaks across his face as he cracks wise. “The next season will be all TYA shows.”