Prolific student playwright Rory Mackenzie’s new show, Bear Hug, is the love-child of 90s sitcoms and hilarious-misunderstanding-based rom-coms. Alex (Jared Liebmiller) is hosting a party to try to tell Sarah (Rebecca D’Souza) that he loves her, but his efforts are impeded by her (and his parents, who have invaded the party) becoming convinced that Alex is gay.
The plot is a bit flimsy, spurred by the inexplicable decision of Alex’s friend Tim (Tom Giles) to misrepresent Alex’s sexuality. I think he’s motivated by some plan that ends with sleeping with a girl, but that’s never really brought out, so that he just seems like an awful human being. However, seeing the plot as a device it becomes more palatable. Lies are told. Untrue notions are formed. Comedy ensues.
Comedy is the operative word. It’s what I was promised in the promotional materials. It’s what I came to see. The show delivered. The humor was tight, witty and well spread throughout the show. Even things like the repeated use of “bear with me” by a bear-costumed Giles, which I was pretty sure I came up with when I was 5, continued to raise laughter through the novel and unexpected placement of the phrase. However, it was at times too reliant on the miasma of misunderstanding which, though amusing, tended to bog down the plot for too long. This culminates in a scene in which a character is misinformed about the sexuality, relationship status and gender of the person he is conversing with, so that they go in circles for so long that the novelty of the situation wears off.
This raises another point. I have overheard Bear Hug described as “the gay play with no gay people in it.” It’s an apt description, but one that leads to questions. The play does indeed nod at the difficulties and intricacies of accepting and supporting people’s sexual identities, but only as a side note. I actually support the idea of a gay play that isn’t laden with the tragedy so often associated with the words ‘gay play’. It normalizes those ideas, rather than keeping them shunned in a sub-genre. But in this case it seems to have resulted in characters with one-dimensional views. The parents, especially, come off as so abrasively ignorant that it jars with the realistic nature of the rest of the script.
Of course, a script is only as good as the actors performing it. The standout performances came from Sarah Pollock, as the strong-willed but ignorant mother Rachel, and Tom Giles who, even though his motivation still eludes me, delivered lines with a believability, and thus an entertainment value, that the rest of the cast didn’t always match. Will Costello’s Bruce is the guiltiest of telling jokes instead of having conversations. That self-awareness becomes grating. Liebmiller’s performance in the central role is strong, imbued with a combination of nerves and endearing exasperation, but it never really evolved. He didn’t get more desperate or more confused over time, which left him somewhat flat in key scenes.
Ultimately, the most important comment I can offer is that I laughed. Often, and gleefully, despite my complaints. Others might be more forgiving, marking the issues as merely “the difficulties of working with student-written pieces.” I reject that notion. Mackenzie’s work demands to be taken as a serious piece of theatre. So if I sound harsh, take it as a sign of respect for the work of the cast and crew of Bear Hug.
Photo courtesy of Bear Hug’s Facebook Page.