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By Bugs Burnett
The last time I saw the world’s most famous gay porn director Chi Chi LaRue was the night Chi Chi was actually barred from entering Montreal’s famed male strip joint Campus.
Campus has welcomed countless celebrities over the years, including Calvin Klein, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Armistead Maupin, Nathan Lane and David Hyde Pierce. But the most recognizable name and face in gay porn?
“They wouldn’t let me in because I’m a drag queen!” Chi Chi complained to me. “They were even playing one of my films on the TV monitors at the time!”
Campus would later apologize.
Chalk it up to the trials and tribulations of being the most famous male strip joint on the planet, so much so that a Campus-like peeler bar figures prominently in renowned Canadian playwright Bryden MacDonald‘s new play With Bated Breath, about a troubled but charismatic gay teen called Willy who flees Cape Breton Island for Montreal to heal his broken heart. Once here, Willy becomes a stripper.
“I did a lot of research at Campus! It was exhausting!” MacDonald cracks. “I’ll do anything for my art!”
He’s not kidding.
Like the main character in his new play, MacDonald himself originally hails from Cape Breton Island. He co-directs the play with Roy Surette, a native Vancouverite who moved to Montreal when he was appointed artistic and executive director of the Centaur Theatre in June 2007. The lead role of Willy is played by 24-year-old Toronto actor Michael Sutherland-Young.
Three real-life gay men who wind up in Montreal to work together on a play that features full-frontal male nudity: How Montreal is that? So Montreal that it’s the closing production of the Centaur’s critically hailed 40th anniversary 2008-9 season.
“Roy brought the Centaur to a whole other level this year,” says Montreal playwright Steve Galluccio, whose new play In Piazza San Domenico will launch the theatre company’s 2009-10 season, and whose previous play, Mambo Italiano, was the last at the Centaur to feature full-frontal male nudity.
In Mambo, the scene of a naked stud cruising at a local bathhouse elicited uncomfortable gasps from the Centaur audience. This time, in With Bated Breath, responses to Willy stripping in a Campus-like strip joint may be a little different – expect a few whoops of delight from the younger, gayer, demographics-bending members of the audience.
“I’m a little anxious,” says Surette. “But this is Montreal – they’ve seen a lot!”
Shaking the foundations
“If Tennessee Williams were from the Maritimes and writing today, he’d sound a lot like Bryden MacDonald,” The Toronto Star once noted. That blurb has fittingly followed MacDonald all the way to Montreal, where the Centaur turned out to be the only mainstream theatre in this country that would touch With Bated Breath.
“I don’t know if it’s the nudity or the queer subject matter, but if you look at mainstream theatres across the country [these days], our stories are not being presented,” MacDonald says. While he admits the “gay-smalltown-youth-moves-to-the-big-city” narrative isn’t exactly original, he definitely brings something new to the mix: “My characters tend to be on the fringes of society, the working poor. With Bated Breath deals with displacement, East-Coasters as well as gay people.”
“While things have progressed for the queer community and being a gay person in the world, I don’t know if things have really changed for young gay boys and girls in small towns,” MacDonald continues. “Of the six characters in this play, Willy is only one who is gay – or openly gay. This play is not about trashing Cape Breton, it’s more about how lying to yourself destroys your life. So Willy escapes to Montreal where, like many young boys, he goes straight to the whores and drag queens, just like I did. I was a little more together than Willy, but I left Cape Breton screaming!”
It’s fitting then that Montreal is the play’s first outing – especially as there’s going to be plenty of nudity.
“We’re still in rehearsals, we don’t know how far we’ll end up pushing it,” says Surette. “With Bated Breath is not a sexually explicit Brad Fraser play. But every character finds their internal stripper. There are many stylized moments of the big reveal.”
And no actor on that stage will reveal more than brown-eyed, drop-dead gorgeous Michael Sutherland-Young, 24, who has already exposed the fully monty in such indie flicks as The Twilight Express and Somebody Is Watching Us. (Sutherland-Young got the With Bated Breath role after another young gay actor, 22-year-old Adamo Ruggiero of Degrassi: The Next Generation, pulled out, his agent apparently worried the nudity would alienate the audience of Ruggiero’s other TV show, YTV’s The Next Star.)
“The media coverage of [my nude movie] roles was all blown out of context,” says Sutherland-Young. “I only did selected nude moments. But this is the first time I’m fully naked on stage. I’m not afraid because being physically naked is just a prop, something I have to do. I agree it’s inherently vulnerable, but as an actor it’s the easiest part because I just have to take off my clothes. My [naked] body acts for me.”
And the sight of that body should please audiences.
“I work out a lot, but my role, Willy, is not supposed to be a big, buff stripper,” says Sutherland-Young, whom when I ask if he’s gay (he is), tells me he “relates” to Willy a lot, “so whatever I got is going to be fine.”
Audience with the Pope
The bounds of theatre may be put to the test in With Bated Breath, but MacDonald is used to controversy. His play Shaking the Foundations, based on the music and lyrics of iconic 1980s Canadian pop band Rough Trade, even shocked Rough Trade’s Carole Pope.
“She’s amazing and a little scary, but I think she’s an amazing songwriter,” MacDonald recalls. “When she found out [my play] was going to be [all] jazz piano, she was like, ‘Fuuuuuckkkkk…’ But it was five hot chicks in tuxedos and Carole almost creamed in her pants!”
There was a lot of buzz around that show, much like the buzz surrounding With Bated Breath and the Centaur’s eye-popping posters featuring a painting of a fully naked young man.
“What I wanted to do my first year in Montreal was show the diversity of things the Centaur can do with our wide audience,” says Surette, pointing out that women – and increasingly gay men – are big theatre ticket buyers. “I do hope to champion other communities in the future as well.”
As for With Bated Breath, even Surette happily admits, “Michael [Sutherland-Young] is a strapping young man, not just the twinkie you read about. And he’s surrounded by some of Montreal’s finest actors.”
This article first appeared on Hour.ca in 2009.