Full Frontal Diva a moving look into the consequences of heteronormativity

Full Frontal Diva is a story of hope buried in a cloud of mysterious and painful darkness. A series of direct address monologues spanning 20 years, Full Frontal Diva gives the brother, best friend, and next door neighbour of Donnie Gallagher (a gay teenage boy who has not so mysteriously drowned in a lake) the chance to explain their relationship with the deceased. One by one the actors take the stage and tell the story of where they’re at now with their life – brother Tommy (Eric Wigston) a few days after his brother’s “accident”, friend Jimmy (Aaron Talbot) ten years after it, and neighbour Kenny (Jesse Gervais) twenty years after the event. While the story reveals the circumstances around Donnie’s death bit-by-bit, Full Frontal Diva is ultimately Kenny’s story of surviving sexual violence, stigmas and narrow-minded thinking.

Full Frontal Diva had quite the effect on me. Being set in a small town, I had a feeling the show would speak to me in a way it wouldn’t speak to other audience members. It did bring up quite a few memories from my teenage years, going to school in a town of 1000 people where my peers and even adults in the town who were “different” experienced some pretty painful things. Donn Short’s script is very true to the experience of living in a small town which, for those who aren’t from that background, is essentially like being in the pressure cooker of high school but with no end in sight. Above all, everyone subscribes to the idea that everything needs to look perfect, even if it’s not, and sometimes maintaining appearances are more important than investigating what’s really going on, especially if that makes people uncomfortable because it makes them see the world differently. It’s the kind of world where adults and children alike feel it’s their right to ostracize anyone who doesn’t fit perfectly into their heteronormative world. It’s the kind of world where if you’re “different”, you’re basically on your own. These are the ideas and beliefs underlie everything that happens in Full Frontal Diva which, even though it starts in 1969, is unfortunately not that different from the experience gay youth face today.

The night I saw Full Frontal Diva, the run-time was about 2 hours with  no intermission, but Blarney Productions‘ show is so engrossing that it feels like half that time. Entering the theatre at La Cité, Daniela Masellis set and Kevin Humphrey’s lighting design is striking. The set’s circular raised platform that is the main playing space, although made from bare wooden 2×4’s, is reminiscent of a round bed from the 1970s – somehow it’s sexual and grungy all at the same time. Dressed with furniture that looks like it could have been made by someone’s grandpa and passed down for a few generations, the set transforms from a teenage boy’s bedroom, to a jail cell, to the Holiday Inn seamlessly.

As mentioned, Full Frontal Diva is a dark show, and Kevin Humphrey’s lighting design really played into that. With great use of directional and highly focused lighting, only the basics of what needed to be lit were actually visible – everything else blended into rich, dark shadows that were really the only backdrop the show needed. One of my favourite moments of Kevin’s lighting design was as Tommy’s monologue reaches its climax as he’s standing over a floor vent as the light from the party below shines up onto his face in the way that kids use a flashlight when telling ghost stories: the light distorts his face and shows him as the terrible, if conflicted, person he is at that moment.

Donn Short’s script is particularly interesting in the way he gives each of his characters god complexes, which is one way the idea of religion is introduced into the play. Reviews of previous productions of Full Frontal Diva have said that Donn’s script places religion and Christianity as the root of homophobia, but director Wayne Paquette’s version does not take this simplistic approach. Instead, through the actor’s full buy-in into their character’s god complexes and the sound design, this production of Full Frontal Diva introduces religion and a Christian God core belief of the citizens of the small town the play takes place in, but presents it as just one factor that has to be considered when thinking about homophobia and judgement – not the only factor.

Eric Wigston, in the role of Donnie’s older brother Tommy, has the god complex of one that observes, listens and silently judges. Eric plays the part of Tommy as a mixture of a holier-than-thou attitude combined with the new-found realization that the things he has said and done are actually pretty evil. While I liked how Eric was able to walk the line between the love Tommy had for his brother and the shame he felt being the brother of a “queer”, I had a hard time seeing the character as a 16 year old. I think this had more to do with Donn Short’s script than with Eric’s acting, as Donn’s script is wordy, uses an extensive vocabulary and exceedingly good grammar, which are rare characteristics for a teenage boy to have.

I was very curious about seeing Aaron Talbot in Full Frontal Diva, especially when I found out he was in the role of the incarcerated Jimmy, Donnie’s childhood best friend. While the only experience I have with Aaron is through his job at Theatre Alberta, Aaron made an absolutely fear-inspiring portrayal of Jimmy. Jimmy has the god complex of being able to cleanse people of their sins and ease their hardships a little. Jimmy portrays himself to us as being the king of the jail and universally loved – both emotionally and physically. According to him, new inmates can’t help but succumb to his sexual charms. For Jimmy, it seems, jail is the one place where being gay is okay. It’s the place where you can say, “When in Rome…” and have as many male partners as you like and then when you leave, you can go back to your girlfriend and your normal heterosexual life.

And finally, Kenny, Donnie’s admiring next door neighbour who grew up to become a drag queen – whether by choice or not – and returns to his hometown to mourn the violent death of Jimmy ten years after they meet in prison. Played by the always wonderful Jesse Gervais, Kenny is presented to us as a little bit of that drag queen trope – the one who can’t help but judge you and offer you salvation through fashion and life advice. Kenny’s story is perhaps the most hard to hear, and the way Jesse portrays the character makes it all the more difficult. The shameless flirtation with the audience, the complete confidence, which we know to be little more than a protective barrier against us, the townsfolk he’s mustered up the courage to come back to show his true self to. Both the victim of the town’s judgement and homophobia, and the idol who shows that those things can be overcome.

Full Frontal Diva is an emotional journey that’s hard, but worthwhile, to take. It leaves you questioning why we have made and continue to make it so hard for youth to be gay (I’m looking at you, Government of Alberta) in a way that shows the harmful, real-world consequences of doing so.

Full Frontal Diva plays at La Cité Francophone until February 21. Tickets are available through La Cité’s box office at 780-469-8400.

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