SummerWorks: Memory, nostalgia & queer men longing to connect in the quirky, charming, poignant Box 4901

Thirteen letters responding to a 1992 gay personals ad sit in a box unanswered. What does the recipient say to these men 26 years later? Memory, nostalgia, connection and hindsight figure prominently in timeshare productions’ SummerWorks presentation of novelist Brian Francis’ autobiographical Box 4901; directed by Rob Kempson and running on the Theatre Centre’s Incubator stage.

Long before the age of smartphones and Grindr, a 21-year-old Francis—then a student at the University of Western Ontario—posted a personals ad in The London Free Press looking for a connection in the small LGBTQ world of conservative London, Ontario. Of the approximately two dozen letters he received, 13 went unanswered and were discovered years later. Francis narrates and responds as 13 queer actors perform each letter.

Featuring actors Bilal Baig, Hume Baugh, Keith Cole, Izad Etemadi, Daniel Krolik, Michael Hughes, Tsholo Khalema, Eric Morin, G Kyle Shields, Chy Ryan Spain, Jonathan Tan, Chris Tsujiuchi and Geoffrey Whynot, the responses to the ad range from the bashful to the pornographic. Coming from a variety of men—ranging in age from high school senior to father figure—from various walks of life (“regular guy,” teacher, farmer, jock, “straight-acting,” leather community), the letters are sassy, charming, eloquent and humourous. The replies are frank, witty, sharply observational; and tempered with kindness, and the hindsight of age and wisdom.

There are some missed chances and missed bullets. All of these men share the same desire to reach out; longing for connection and a cure for aloneness, there’s a vulnerable authenticity in even the cockiest of responses. And the fear of being outed to family or housemates is as palpable and strong as the excitement and anticipation of a new connection.

Box 4901 has one more SummerWorks performance at the Theatre Centre on Aug 19 at 4:45 p.m.; it’s already sold out, but you can try your luck by arriving early to see if there are any no-shows.

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Preview: Moving modern LGBT take on classic star-crossed lovers in Romeo and (her) Juliet

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Leslie McBay (Romeo) & Krystina Bojanowski (Juliet)

Headstrong Collective and Urban Bard took us to the Church of Shakespeare at Bloor Street United Church last night – literally and figuratively – in their preview performance of Romeo and (her) Juliet, directed by Urban Bard A.D. Scott Emerson Moyle, and produced by Headstrong Collective co-founders/producers/actors Melanie Hrymak and Leslie McBay.

Outside the sanctuary, on opposite sides of the doors, are tables with photographs of Tybalt (Hrymak) and Mercutio (Max Tepper), with accompanying guest books and condolence cards. Inside, front and centre, there is a poster-sized photograph of Romeo (McBay) and Juliet (Krystina Bojanowski), an image captured at their wedding. The play is set during a memorial service, and in Friar Laurence’s (Lisa Karen Cox) memory of events from the previous week.

This is a moving, modern-day, queer interpretation of Romeo and Juliet; the lovers are both women, as are Benvolio (Clare Blackwood) and Friar Laurence (Cox), while Nurse is Capulet’s male assistant (Shawn Ahmed, who also plays Sgt. Prince, a community liaison officer). Mrs. Capulet (Siobhan Richardson, also doing double duty as fight director) is Capulet’s (Geoffrey Whynot) second wife, with the up and coming Paris (Adrian Shepherd) their prime choice for a son-in-law. The one-line character descriptions in the program read like Facebook status points and the cast reflects the diverse culture of Toronto – and the enmity between the Capulets and Montagues is as much about the one percent vs. the 99 percent as it is about family feud.

McBay and Bojanowski are lovely as the ill-fated teen lovers; McBay’s Romeo is a sensitive romantic, with a melancholy edge and soft butch swagger, and Bojanowski’s Juliet is bright and sweet, unspoiled by her privileged life and looking forward to a sense of independence while away at university. Blackwood and Tepper give strong – and often comic – performances as Romeo’s BFFs: the streetwise and protective Benvolio (Blackwood) and party boy Fool Mercutio (Tepper). Hrymak’s Tybalt is nicely nuanced – haughty and proud, but not without conscience in her drive to defend her family’s reputation. Whynot carries Capulet’s alpha male power well, his angry outbursts hinting at the potential for physical violence; Richardson’s Mrs. Capulet, step-mother to Juliet, is a compelling contradiction of chilly Rosedale matron whose emotions run deep and intense. Cox does a beautiful job as Laurence, the supportive community cleric, as well as mentor and friend to Romeo – caught in the middle of a family war and desperately trying to resolve it. Doing double acting duty, Ahmed is the picture of efficiency and warmth as Nurse, and equally supportive, but at the end of his patience, as Sgt. Prince; and Adrian Shepherd gives us a perfectly coiffed and well-mannered Paris, with a hint of bad boy beneath the golden boy exterior, and a nice turn as the wary street-dwelling drug dealer who begrudgingly sells Romeo the deadly poison.

The site-specific venue works incredibly well for this production of Shakespeare’s timeless classic tale of star-crossed love – and the 90-minute abridged version of the script hits all the important plot points and sweet spots the audience needs to become immersed in the story. In the end, are bereft and grieving – including the audience.

With shouts to composer Stephen Joffe for the moving atmospheric soundtrack; and stage manager Christina Abes for keeping things running smoothly and at a good pace in the complex, multi-level playing space.

Headstrong Collective/Urban Bard production of Romeo and (her) Juliet is a powerful contemporary urban interpretation, beautifully staged and truthfully acted. Go see this.

Romeo and (her) Juliet opens tomorrow night (Fri, Sept 5) and runs until Sept 20 at Bloor Street United Church (300 Bloor Street West at Huron); entrance is on the Bloor St. side, around the middle of the building. You can purchase tickets at the door 30 minutes before the show or online here. Please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time; the show runs 90 minutes with no intermission.