The maple leaf country to the north of us should be proud to call Canadian playwright Michael Lewis Maclennan one of its own. Maclennan's stunningly breathtaking play The Shooting Stage is currently enjoying its New York premiere and it's a major work. This fearless play about homoerotic desire and the fine line between art and obscenity speaks with an eloquent honesty that most American writers getting produced nowadays can only dream of.
Maclennan deftly weaves together two plot strands in his tragic opus. Len (Ben Masur), a photographer, is on trial for taking what have been deemed "obscene" photos of adolescent boys and girls. Defending his work as beautiful art, Len finds himself losing the legal battle until he is aided by lawyer Malcolm (Christopher Durham) whom he knows from childhood when they were both actors on a popular television show. As Malcolm helps Len fight the courts, it soon becomes evident that they share a deeply troubled history together that is in much need of healing.
Set off against this legal fracas is the story of Elliot (Hunter Gilmore), an effeminate high school student who lusts after his best friend Ivan (Noah Peters), while being taunted by homophobic classmate Derrick (Robin Lord Taylor). Decked out in his dead mother's dresses, Elliot escapes his dreary life via the alter ego of drag invention Leda Swan, a worldly diva who lacks all of Elliot's awkwardness. To say how this plot thread dovetails with Len and Malcolm's story would be to give too much away, and the intricate web that Maclennan has woven is part of the play's dazzling, layered brilliance.
Maclennan's writing is superb, never a false word, just scene after scene of emotional integrity and wonderfully discomforting moments. All of Maclennan's characters are well drawn, and their fragile vulnerability, which rests right beneath their hard exteriors, results in real conflicts that are exciting to watch. Given the anxieties, complex motivations, and power issues that each character brings to the piece, Maclennan's scenes are tautly drawn strings that are waiting to snap at any moment.
The play's superior writing is equally matched by a pitch-perfect production helmed by director John Pinckard and executed by a flawless cast of actors. Fully utilizing the Culture Project's awkward basement theater space, Pinckard creates exciting stage images that play on a variety of visual and spatial planes. Pinckard's smooth direction complements the intricate plot that Maclennan has designed and finds seamless ways to connect the scenes together. The simple, yet elegant physical production (designed by Jason Lajka) is enhanced by wonderful lighting (Robert W. Henderson, Jr.) and sharp, evocative sound design by Julie Pittman.
Maclennan could not wish for a better cast with his material. The actors fully inhabit their roles, bringing full weight to the play's complex and emotional writing. Masur and Durham are both excellent in the "older" roles of Len and Malcolm, but it is the younger cast of Taylor, Gilmore, and Peters who are truly superb. Bringing an edginess and honesty to each of their roles, they capture the insecurities of youth in a manner that is often disturbingly real. As homophobic knife - and gun - toting bully Derrick, Robin Lord Taylor is a scary and unnerving presence. Newcomer Noah Peters brings not only boyish charm to his role as Ivan, but more importantly reveals a depth of character whose mixed allegiances to his friends and repressed desires are frighteningly dark.
It is Hunter Gilmore as Elliot, though, who really steals the show. It's a testimony to both Gilmore's acting skills and Maclennan's writing that the figure of Elliot never dissolves into an effeminate stereotype; rather Gilmore continually embodies Elliot with equal parts of steely resolve and scared child, which make for a compelling performance. Gilmore dazzles as he seamlessly moves from confident drag persona Leda Swan to easily intimidated high school student. Playing Elliot's physical and emotional fragility against the butch behavior of Derrick and Ivan makes for some truly gripping scenes. Hands down, Gilmore is one to watch.
Without a doubt, this is one of the best plays to grace the stage since Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive, another work that pushes on the boundaries of seduction and moral impropriety. How lucky for New Yorkers, we don't have to travel all the way to Canada to see this work. Let's just hope that more of Maclennan's writing will be crossing the border very soon.
The Shooting Stage