“Feeling the air up my skirt…That was one of the greatest sensations.” So says John, a cross-dressing straight guy in The Explanation. Watching The Explanation, I got a bit of wind up my skirt, too. By loosening the restrictions on gender expression, The Explanation made me feel free—even exhilarated.
In James Fagan Tait’s script, John, who’s a mental-health worker, is surprised when he stumbles across his taste for wearing women’s clothing. But, before long, he’s popping on a wig, slipping into a Value Village miniskirt, and hanging out in the literary DVDs section of the Vancouver Public Library.
One day, a shy guy named Dick, who also identifies as straight, takes a leap and decides to chat to John, whom he perceives as an attractive woman. As soon as John speaks, Dick knows he’s a man, but they go for coffee anyway. And that’s the mystery: these guys are straight, one of them is wearing a mini-skirt, and they go for coffee anyway. What’s up?
As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that cross-dressing is the vehicle that allows John and Dick to step outside socially imposed definitions of male and female, gay and straight, and to discover for themselves the nature of their affection—and possibly desire—for one another.
In this production, which Tait also directed, Kevin MacDonald (John) and Evan Frayne (Dick) deliver such generous performances. In John’s opening monologue, MacDonald’s John is so delighted by his new wardrobe and so eager to share his joy that he’s like a toddler who’s just figured out how to walk. And, as Tait’s language describes John’s dizzying path, MacDonald rides the words like he’s skateboarding—that toddler learns fast—leaning into the the repeated word anyway as he grins and takes corner after corner.
Dick is less effusive than John, but Frayne is no less present than MacDonald as he works his character’s sweet nerdiness, singing along in falsetto in a gay disco where Dick and his buddy are discovering new things about the capacities of their bodies.
The story takes a turn. If you want to preserve the pleasure of discovering it for yourself, don’t read any further.
After having insisted about every five minutes that they’re straight, our two sweet comrades fall into making out with one another. A couple of the significant milestones in their ensuing relationship made me weep.
Still, I am ambivalent about how their coupledom is framed. Even though John and Dick love one another and are having sex together, they remain resistant to labels. John’s basic position is “Am I gay? Maybe. Who cares? Why even ask the question?” On the one hand, I appreciate the spaciousness of this stance. On the other, while John and Dick are happy to live together as a same-sex couple, they seem oblivious to the struggle that allows them to do so—an ongoing struggle waged by folks who aren’t so resistant about self-identifying as queer. There’s an argument to be made for identity politics and, to me, that argument make John and Dick look solipsistic.
Another quibble: both men cross dress and, when they do, each of them says to the other, “Protect me. Because you’re the man.” Why does the role-play for both characters have to be cast in such retrograde terms?
Still, I appreciate a script that can stimulate such questions. And I appreciate the text’s essential invitation to curiosity.
Besides, there’s some lovely writing here. John’s opening monologue goes on too long, but it contains some memorable images: the first time he looks at himself nude except for a wig, John sees his potential differently. “It was like looking at a naked stranger,” he says, “but for as long as I wanted.” And I enjoyed Dick’s description of what it was like to kiss a man for the first time. “Saltier” than women he reports. “Like he’d been eating salami all year.”
There is an unsupported convention: presumably, John can pass when cross-dressing, but not in the short-sleeved, boy-nipple-revealing T-shirt that costumer Carmen Alatorre gives MacDonald, he can’t. And, speaking of costumes, why has Alatorre given these two the world’s ugliest miniskirts to wear?
In terms of design, the big success is Bryan Kenney’s set. His tall tableau of blue sky and white clouds does an excellent job of evoking the light-headed thrill of possibility.
I encourage you to attend The Explanation. Take a date or two. And then see what variations on the themes of sex and gender you can come up with afterwards.
THE EXPLANATION Written and directed by James Fagan Tait. A frank theatre company production. At the Vancity Culture Lab on Friday, April 20. Continues until April 29.
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