REVIEW: Box 4901 Is A Powerful (If Somewhat Un-Packed) Exploration of Queer Loneliness and Desire
In many ways, 1992 is regarded, wistfully, as “a simpler time.” If you were a gay man, however – particularly, in the case of Brian Francis, a closeted gay university student with four straight male roommates – it was a time filled with complexities, loneliness, and missed connections.
This is the portrait painted by Box 4901, playwright Francis’ sold out submission to the SummerWorks Festival, presented at the BMO Incubator at The Theatre Centre. Box 4901 is an autobiographical piece, blurring the lines between performance and reality; we centre on Francis, now a 47 year-old novelist, as he recalls the personal ad he placed in the London Free Press in 1992 and the various letters he received to which he never replied. With a cast of thirteen queer actors embodying each of the thirteen unanswered letters, Francis now answers them. His responses range from glib and humorous to heartfelt, indicative both of time passed and wisdom gained.
Under Rob Kempson’s direction, these thirteen performers serve as a sort of physical Greek chorus to Francis’ revelations. They respond to his words with choreography that is mesmerizing in its precision, but does not distract from the narrative. One by one, each hopeful pleads his case to Francis; the company’s ability to share major and minor on stage is a mark of professionalism across the stellar cast.
By his own admission, Francis is not a professional actor, but he nevertheless handles the text capably. The standout here, without a doubt, is Keith Cole. The drag performer and sometimes-politician – “The only mayoral candidate who drinks pints of Molson Canadian from a straw,” during his run in 2010 – shines both as a six-foot respondent named “Cuddles” and in a mime sequence that accompanies a story about Francis’s mother, in which she finds a pile of Francis’s shitty underwear behind the dresser and makes him rue the day.
You may be wondering how Francis’s shitty underwear would come up in a personal ad response. That is the beauty of Francis’s narrative. His knack for drawing lines between exceptional circumstance and the commonplace despair of every-day life is what makes this piece so textually tight.
Despite its strengths, however, there may be limitations to what Box 4901 is willing to investigate. I wonder, for example, about the choice to cast actors who do not resemble the personal ads that they embody. The thirteen actors cast come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, have a variety of different body types, and are costumed by Brandon Kleiman across a myriad of positions on the gender spectrum. Almost every letter that specifies physical appearance, however, describes a man who advertises himself as white and straight-acting (as if these qualities are selling points). It is not made clear whether these choices are intended literally – whether the respondents possess the same bodies their performers do and are deceiving Francis out of necessity or desperation – or whether this is a case of “colour-blind” casting.
Perhaps the textual depiction of white-ness and masculinity, juxtaposed with bodies who do not necessarily conform to these criteria, is the creative team’s attempt to call attention to oppressive “beauty standards” within the cis, white, gay community. After all, it’s not like we are past so-called harmless “preferences” for masc or femme, or casual dating culture white supremacy. A quick scroll through your app of choice shows that bigotry under the guise of attraction is as present in 2018 as it was in 1992. Francis’ own letter features the strict instruction: “Princess Di and Rambo wannabes need not apply.” Perhaps Francis feels that to call attention to this troublesome reinforcement of binaries would be pointing out the obvious – just another embarrassing relic of days past. For the amount of time that Francis spends talking about shitty underwear, I find myself hoping he will address these issues a little more head on.
After all, we exist in a not so simple time.
There is an adage: “Write what you know.” And surely, it must be true – I am in no way suggesting Francis bear the burden of oppression he has not experienced. Given, however, how embedded the production’s marketing, content, and cast is within the diverse queer community, I find Francis falls short representing, in his content, the community represented by his co-stars. Perhaps this piece would benefit from a little less reality and a little more fiction. If the show’s casting choices are literal, the stories of the respondents become incredibly diverse and reflective of a wider scope of complexities felt by the gay community in 1992. I want to know who they are. I want to follow their stories. Perhaps that is the piece’s flaw, but – as Francis never got to know them – neither too will we.
Ultimately, 4901 is a box left unpacked. The premise is solid, strong writing and performances are highlights, but the piece half-asks questions with costumes and casting that it does not seem comfortable addressing with text. Box 4901 is, however, presented as part of the SummerWorks Lab, described in the show program as “a place for exploration, experimentation, and process.” My hope is that with further dramaturgical intervention by Kempson, Francis will continue the fine work he has started by re-shaping his narrative to address the full scope of politics around identity that his piece poses, thereby not simply eternalizing his own personal memories, but fully reflecting upon the environment in which they were produced.
Kate Croome is a Toronto-based writer, performer, administrator, and theatre-goer. She is a graduate of Brock University’s Dramatic Arts program, where she developed her critical eye through a praxis-based curriculum. Her work has been previously featured in alt.theatre, Stratford Festival Reviews, and The Sound, Niagara’s Arts & Culture Paper.