UNSEX’d is raunchy, campy, vulgar queer theatre playing at Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto
UNSEX’d (playing at Buddies in Bad Times) is real, live psychobiddy. It’s impossible to watch this show and not think of Bette Davis in All About Eve, or Bette Davis in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, or Bette Dav–well, you get the point. If you know what I’m talking about when I name-check these films, you already know what to expect: a vulgar, frank, and deeply satisfying melodrama on aging, sanity, identity and gender.
But even if this world is new to you–if you don’t know All About Eve from Adam–if you have the stomach for moderately-raunchy queer theatre, UNSEX’d is a do-not-miss experience.
Two Elizabethan actors compete for the right to originate Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. One of them (Jay Whitehead) is profoundly experienced–and increasingly old. No longer the apple of “Willy’s” eye, he has grown both profoundly bitter and extremely desperate to avoid his inevitable slide towards the darker side of middle-age. The other (Adam Beauchesne) is young, fresh, and inexperienced. Initially the two forge a healthy (and strictly-platonic) mentor-student relationship, but as the youth becomes more of a threat to the master, things rapidly come unhinged.
My guest and I agreed that the decision to make liberal use of spirits and witches was spectacularly wise. These dalliances with the fantastical not only allow the actors to burble right over the top, they–more importantly–root the production firmly in the Shakespearean tradition. For all the silly, campy fun, this piece has an awful lot of brains, with particular insights into gender, queerness and performativity. Co-writers Jay Whitehead and Daniel Judes know how to mix their pleasure with their book-smarts, and the result is delectable.
Designers Aaron Collier (sound), Rob Stanford (lighting) and David Barrus (set and costumes) work in perfect tandem with one another. While the story is ostensibly set during Shakespeare’s lifetime, props and design choices refuse to be hemmed in, jumbling together various time periods to considerable success: this is a case of form following function, and the effect emphasizes the timelessness of the story, message and themes. One minor qualm is that the lack of darkness in the Buddies Cabaret space wrecks several of the lighting effects, but that’s a venue-level problem.
Whitehead’s performance immediately put me in mind of Kenneth Williams at his cattiest, and the pantomime touches only augment the experience. (Whitehead and Judes’ puns are outstanding in every regard.) If you like camp and pantomime as much as I do, you’ll really get a kick out of UNSEX’d.
But my guest, who knows very little of Shakespeare, and even less about campy queery theatre, enjoyed it even more than I did. It’s a roaring good time for theatre-lovers and dabblers alike, with just the right mix of high-brow and downright-vulgar to please (and slightly offend) everyone. Highly, highly recommended.
Photograph of Jay Whitehead and (parts of) Adam Beauchesne provided by the company.