In 1992, Brian Francis, a queer 21-year-old man living in southwestern Ontario, placed a personals ad in the newspaper. He received many responses, including thirteen to which he did not reply. Now, 28 years later, he responds to these letters with hilarity and poignancy in his play Box 4901, directed and co-created by Rob Kempson, playing at Buddies in Bad Times theatre.
Reading these letters aloud is like opening a time capsule. The beauty of this play is that Francis uses these letters to reflect on the time, place, and the person he was at 21, as well as the experience of being queer in 1992 in southwestern Ontario.
I grew up in Toronto in the 2000s, and sometimes I forget just how precarious it was to be queer in the 90s, especially in a small town. As Francis responds to these letters, he reveals his own feelings about not being entirely out at the time, the people he didn’t want to tell, and the constant feeling that he could lose everything.
This production, as introspective as it is, is also quite straightforward in its themes.
There are 13 actors, who each play one of the 13 respondents as Francis reads their respective letter. Each actor portrays their role hilariously, hamming up the stereotype of the older gentleman, the jock, etc.
The production is certainly a little kitschy, but I think that’s part of its charm. My guest felt the play wasn’t always entirely cohesive but was overall engaging and creative. I was very smitten with this production, despite the fact I felt it was occasionally a little redundant in its format.
I really liked Francis’ reflections on age. He truly embodies his 21-year-old self and acknowledges that that self feels distant from the person he is now. He uses these reflections and the letters as time capsules to delve into his own history.
Francis actually put in hours and hours of work going through microfiches of the newspaper to find the ad, and a second ad, he had placed. The tangible aspect of these memories ties in beautifully to the idea that memories are subjective and fleeting.
Tying the production together is the notable lighting by Cosette Pin and a perfect soundscape by Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski. The faint techno music that pulses in the background encapsulates the adrenaline of the 90s dating scene. The hazy purple lighting that settles low on the stage feels dreamlike.
Box 4901 is a lovely memoir that is absolutely worth seeing. If you get the chance, grab a ticket before they’re gone.
- Box 4901 is playing until March 8, 2020, at Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander Street)
- Shows run Tuesday to Sunday at 8 pm, with additional matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 pm
- Tickets are $42.00 Thursday – Saturday evenings, $35.00 Tuesday – Thursday and matinees, $25.00 for students. Rush tickets are available and go on sale at noon for that day’s performance.
- Seats are general admission
- Tickets are available online, by phone at 416-975-8555, or in person at the box office
- Use of fog machines
Photo of Brian Francis by Tanja Tiziana