The cleaving of identity

A family portrait of a son, father, daughter, and mother not smiling.

Cleave by Elena Belyea. Pictured: Luc Tellier, Dave Horak, Emma Houghton, and Elena Porter. Photo credit Mat Simpson.

Cleave: a contranym meaning both to sever or to stick together.

Cleave – Elena Belyea’s latest play exploring the meaty questions of identity, self-acceptance, and acceptance of others – joins audiences and performers in the common experience of searching for an answer to the question ‘who am I?’, while recognizing that the answer to that question can only come from unique and separate journeys for each person.

In Cleave, we meet 17-year-old Aaron (played by Jordan Fowlie), an intersex individual who has moved from rural Alberta to Edmonton as part of his transition to male. As an outcome of a science class project, he meets Mark (Luc Tellier) and his rather disjointed family (I might argue more of a collection of individuals who happen to live together, rather than a cohesive unit). The father, Paul (Dave Horak), struggles to understand and accept his sexual orientation, mother Carol (Elena Porter) keeps her historical and annual plastic surgeries secret from her children, sister Pina (Emma Houghton) struggles with her body image seen both through her own lens and that of her mother. At the centre, we find Mark, who has embraced his own sexual identity but is bullied daily for being gay. And on the fringe, Aaron’s therapist Rachel (Natasha Napoleao) who is Aaron’s gatekeeper to gender confirmation surgery and serves as a level-setter for information on being intersex.

A family and guest sitting down to eat together.

Cleave by Elena Belyea. Pictured: Emma Houghton, Jordan Fowlie, Elena Porter, Luc Tellier, and Dave Horak. Photo credit Mat Simpson.

The way the family of Paul, Carol, Mark, and Pina work off each other provides much of the humour in Cleave. In particular, a family dinner where Pina is going overboard trying to get her mother to explain a photo of a woman who looks just like Pina elicits laughter and cringes of familiarity. In the role of Pina, Emma Houghton unleashes every bit of teenage insecurity, anger, and antics that one can imagine over the course of the 90-minute play. In the face of Pina’s antics, Elena Porter expresses an exasperation that is equally justified and identifiable. Dave Horak brings a sinister twist to his portrayal of the father figure – despite being jovial enough, it’s clear Paul’s struggle to accept his attraction to men leaves a mark on his relationship with his family. Most normal of all is Mark, played by Luc Tellier, who displays a comfort in his own skin that stands out amongst the swirling sea of his family’s confusion.

While Aaron befriending Mark is the catalyst setting Cleave in motion, it’s hard to place Aaron firmly at the centre of the arc of the play, given all the chaos that surrounds him throughout the play. Regardless, Jordan Fowlie does a good job in portraying a quiet confidence in Aaron and a maturity beyond his 17 years.

Natasha Napoleao has a difficult job as the therapist Rachel – whose questions and answers seem to be a clinical explanation of all things intersex, transgender, and gender identity. The counselling sessions between Rachel and Aaron may have better served the play as direct addresses, rather than a dramatic device serving the purpose of clarifying the information presented elsewhere in the play. Regardless, Natasha’s take on Rachel’s upbeat cheerfulness and rapidly disintegrating professionalism is an interesting take on just one of the gatekeepers that anyone wishing to have gender confirmation surgery must engage with on their journey.

The gradual reveal that playwright Elena Belyea is so good at (see Elena’s Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare for the Inevitable and Everyone We Know Will Be There: A House Party in One Act) is on full display during Cleave. Like in life, Cleave has no easy answers; no grand reveal. Instead, the characters before us are vulnerable and real, and the audience walks away with unanswered questions, challenged assumptions, and having spent some time outside our own experience of defining ourselves and inside the experience of others trying to do the same thing.

Navigating the play as an audience member is messy and confusing – a reminder there is no easy way to answer the question ‘who am I?’. Cleave shows no matter one’s age, life stage, sexual orientation, or physical body, we’re all constantly working through that question.

Cleave runs at about 90 minutes and plays until April 7 at the Backstage Theatre at the ATB Financial Arts Barns. Tickets are $25 in advance through the Fringe Theatre Adventures Box Office and a portion of tickets to each performance are set aside for pay-what-you-can purchases at the door.

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