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Theatre in Review: Bundle of Sticks (INTAR/Radio Drama Network)

Lucille Duncan, Zo Tipp, Hope Ward. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

In J. Julian Christopher's new play, the intense, sadistic Otto Naim runs a gay-conversion therapy center in arid, remote Coober Pedy, Australia. It's an interesting location: Coober Pedy, a center of opal mining, and most of its residents escape its desert conditions by living below ground in dugouts. (The photos of the town, available online, are fascinating; you learn something new every day in this line of work.) Exactly why Christopher has chosen this exotic setting is something we'll get to in a moment, but he convenes an international cast of men to take part in Otto's program. They include Francisco, a fortyish widowed Dominican bartender; Abram, a married, fiftyish Russian Bukharian Jew; Gregos, a young, hot Greek; Gemi, a skeptical, worldly young Indonesian; and Tyree, a married black American war vet. Francisco, Abram, Gregos, Gemi, Otto, and Tyree: Note the word formed using the first letter of each name and you'll get a sense of the author's approach.

Otto is a piece of work, presiding over his charges with sadistic glee and overseeing a program that is bursting with homoerotic undertones. Laying out his methodology for the audience, he suggests that prehistoric man lived in a blessedly Rousseauvian state of natural heterosexuality: "There were no pansy Cro-Magnons, swishing their apelike forms into 'light in the loafer' stunts that these degenerates call death drops," he says, producing cartoons of cavemen staring lustily at each other's erections. Assembling his latest batch of clients, he has them strip naked and introduce themselves by shaking each other's penises. (Handshakes, apparently, are reserved for the comfortably heterosexual.) He also commands that they sniff each other's genitalia, saying "You won't find stability with your tongue on another man's musty undercarriage, will ya?"

In fact, Otto is just getting started. Gemi is made to repeatedly scream, "I'm a no-good poofter and I want to be a man." When Gregos admits that he didn't have much of a relationship with this father, Otto smugly notes, "Explains a lot, now, doesn't it...How a stud of a man such as yourself could want to take a dip in the testosterone-flavored swamp, yeah?" The whole problem, as Otto sees it, is this: "Too often I see blokes just lay down and give in to this bizarre and maladjusted homosexual life that the world is forcing down our throats and mandating us to swallow." At one point, a Tom of Finland poster is produced, in an apparent attempt at aversion therapy; good luck with that.

Such abuse is hard on the characters and audience alike, although perhaps for different reasons. In any case, the combination of bullying, nudity, and proximity only breeds a steamy atmosphere in which the men pair off, allowing Otto to spy on them while masturbating. For this, the characters (or their parents) are paying good money.

This crazed setup is the biggest, if not the only, problem with Bundle of Sticks. Otto's methods are too crude and blatant to qualify as satire and are too overdrawn to accurately represent such programs. As films like Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post -- and numerous personal testimonies -- indicate, gay conversion therapy is insidious not for instances of lurid carrying-on but because it is often associated with evangelical Christian churches; the programs are typically piloted by profoundly deluded souls who believe they are acting out God's will. (That the men who run them are usually closet cases is beyond question.) It's their sincerity that is so killing. Christopher's caricatured scenario makes Otto's program into an unfunny joke, too easily dismissed.

It probably doesn't aid the audience's comprehension that the characters are played by women and or nonbinary performers, with dildos of various sizes and colors attached to their crotches during the nude scenes. ("We have cast it without cis male actors," says Lou Moreno, the director, in the press release. "We hope the play will reveal why." I'm still waiting for that particular revelation.) Or that Gemi and Tyree are lovers who somehow ended up in the program together. (Tyree has allegedly come to rescue Gemi, but the circumstances of this are extremely unclear.) Or that Otto inexplicably has the ability to instantly hypnotize his subjects with a snap of his fingers. Or that a "rainbow serpent," billed in the script as "a cosmic multi-colored phallic snake" appears in various scenes (fantasy sequences, I think) to penetrate various characters. Also, because you can never be too intersectional, we learn that Otto comes from several generations of colonizers, including a grandfather who committed atrocities against aborigines -- thus the Australian setting.

When not indulging in such purple scenarios involving anal rape and strange disappearances, Christopher writes solidly dramatic scenes, including a series of flashbacks in which Abram, Francisco, and Gregos confront the loved ones who really, really wish they weren't gay. At times, he has a way with a funny line. Otto, trying to convince Abram that he is the victim of a neglectful father, asks, "Did he play catch with you?" "We were fleeing from communism," Abram replies. "He was busy." Since the characters are so poorly defined, the cast can't make much of an impression. Gemi, in particular, seems to shift his intentions from scene to scene, leaving Zo Tipp at a great disadvantage. But Melissa Navia is occasionally touching as Francisco, and as Otto, Laura Jordan certainly is the type of guy you don't want to encounter in a desert dugout.

Meghan E. Healey's stripped-down set design paints the theatre's walls the precise color of the Coober Pedy dugouts, and Harbour Edney's lighting reshapes the space as needed; together, they make an authentically claustrophobic atmosphere, which is what is wanted. Jesse Mandapat's sound design is most effective during a dust storm sequence and some bursts of electronic dance music.

But the play's overreaching ways sabotage its intentions. This is a subject that has been treated at length elsewhere, more critically and with greater sensitivity, and in trying to bring something new to it, Christopher turns it into camp, and unfunny camp at that. Bundle of Sticks tells you something you already know, in the most obvious and labored way. --David Barbour


(3 March 2020)

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