PanicLab, Theseus Beefcake

Posted: March 27th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on PanicLab, Theseus Beefcake

PanicLab, Theseus Beefcake, The Albany, Deptford, March 9

Joseph Mercier and Jordan Lennie in Theseus Beefcake

Joseph Mercier and Jordan Lennie in Theseus Beefcake

It began with a question choreographer Joseph Mercier was asked by a correspondent on the gay social network app, Grindr: Are you masculine? Not sure how to answer, and then getting blocked, he was left to ponder the question with long-time collaborator Lennie. But Lennie likes to wear his girlfriend’s clothes, paints his fingernails occasionally, wears his hair long and was kicked off his school football team after missing a game for a dress rehearsal of Billy Elliott. Mercier himself grew up in a cowboy environment at the foot of the Canadian Rockies and went to ballet school. If these two researchers were going to explore the question of masculinity they felt they would have to adopt some masculine stereotypes like drinking beer, crushing cans, spitting, watching football games, wearing sports shirts, and going to the gym. They even checked up on the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur for inspiration.

In Theseus Beefcake Mercier tells the story of an evening in a local Alberta town. He had started ballet school and was on his way with friends to a bar called Outlaws when he was stopped by four rednecks in a pickup truck. ‘Are you gay?’, they asked. On replying ‘Yes’, he was immediately surrounded but escaped to the bar only to see the same rednecks arrive later. He fled. “I know that leaving the bar that night was the right solution,” Mercier says, “but part of me wishes I had stayed to fight for my right to be there.” Theseus Beefcake sets out to put the record straight: a beefcake in a labyrinthian struggle to defeat gender stereotypes.

Written and created by the trio of Mercier, Lennie, and Canadian playwright, Jordan Tannahill, the set is a bullring concocted by the ever-resourceful Rachel Good and lit by Ziggy Jacobs-Wyburn: The Albany (who co-commissioned the work with Homotopia) is transformed into an arena in which we are seated around the circular balcony looking down on the action. In the centre is a raised boxing ring with red floor lights but no ropes, attached on opposite sides to a platform where Mercier and Lennie establish their respective camps. Two helmets sit in the ring to remind us of the mythical analogy: a black bull’s head for the Minotaur and one plumed helmet for Theseus. In the opening the two helmeted men raise the stakes of male antagonism by trading threats across the ring about what each will do with the other’s balls. They strip down to their trunks, chug down a can of beer, crush it in one hand, discard it in manly fashion and get down to an all-out wrestle, a homosocial form of sport with sexual undertones that are often disguised.

Mercier first experienced wrestling at school when he and fellow student Joseph were in gym class; sparing together they each discovered a sexual attraction. Being in Alberta, this leads to a Brokeback Mountain moment when Mercier and Lennie camp out to Dinah Mullen’s sounds of a crackling camp fire (Lennie in cowboy outfit with two desultory wieners on a stick), embrace, sing a duet, pass out a shot of Jack Daniels to the audience and dance to the song Cadillac Ranch. They get into a scrap and from the dense haze that permeates the ring, Lennie’s Theseus emerges on the shoulders of Mercier’s Minotaur. This succession of anecdotes, songs, dancing, wrestling and boxing excavates the layers of masculinity in a seamless and often hilarious blend of bulls, balls, beer and ballet. The only flat notes of the evening are the one or two sung by Mercier, but his delivery wins over.

In the Greek myth it is Ariadne, daughter of the Minotaur’s master, who gives her lover Theseus a lifeline in the form of a thread he lets out behind him as he enters the labyrinth so he will find his way back after killing the beast. Mercier’s willingness to enter the labyrinth of gender politics and to slay the monster at its heart is complemented by Lennie as both the Minotaur taunting Mercier in and as Ariadne leading him out. It is part of a complex relationship in which Mercier, with an aversion to aggression, likes to play out his power fantasies while Lennie, with an equal aversion to aggression, likes to play the submissive role that enables it. They discuss this gender identity role-playing in a talk-show format that ties together the Grindr experience and the rednecks at Outlaws. “I don’t want to privilege binary gender mouth,” quips Mercier as he prepares to lay his demons to rest. In anticipation they brawl on a beer-soaked stage, exulting in the physical intimacy. While Mercier as Theseus mops up, Lennie in a parallel universe sings Electricity from Billy Elliott. ‘I really can’t explain it, I haven’t got the words…’

Mercier invites the audience down to the ringside as clients of Outlaws, but the contest is not what we are expecting. Mercier does not appear as Theseus the hero slaying the redneck Minotaur (which would be to perpetuate the myth of gender stereotypes). Instead he enters wearing the Minotaur mask, a Chicago Bulls vest and boxing gloves: “Welcome to the labyrinth, Motherfucker,” he snarls at the defenceless Lennie. They trade insults about the size of each other’s dick then Mercier begins to lay into Lennie, knocking him down repeatedly with hard punches to the chest and head. Lennie takes it all without putting up any resistance, getting up for more until he has finally had enough. We are left wondering who is fighting whom and if anyone has won. But that is exactly what Theseus Beefcake sets out to answer. In the complex fight against straightforward assumptions of what it is to be masculine and the ways in which it might be expressed, Mercier and Lennie have in effect slain the myth of binary opposition in gender stereotypes, and in doing so they have both earned their right to be themselves without fully conforming to any particular stereotype. Recovering, the two men find just enough breath to trade threats about what each will do with the other’s balls.