Power Play: St. Francis of Millbrook

During three weeks at the end of August, the 4th Line Theatre in Millbrook, Ontario, about an hour outside of Toronto, presented the world premiere of St. Francis of Millbrook by Sky Gilbert, who is a playwright, novelist, actor, educator and drag queen. So what about this caught my attention? A quick read of the play’s blurb clears up that question: “Luke is a son and a brother who plays hockey and loves working on the family farm. Luke is just like everyone else except for one thing—his parents are concerned that he likes the pop star Madonna a little too much. This is a must-see coming of age story about growing up gay in rural Ontario.”

Since I’m already a huge fan of theatre in general, there’s nothing like adding the word “hockey” to a description to make a play scream for more attention. Sadly, I couldn’t make it from New York to Millbrook while the play was running. However, the good folks at 4th Line hooked me up with a script so I could read the play and I also got the opportunity to ask some questions of the playwright to find out more about this show.

The play opens as the Simcoe farm is preparing to host a stag and doe, which is a fundraiser that’s held before a wedding so a couple doesn’t start married life in debt. Sixteen-year-old Luke Simcoe is the troubled eldest son. He loves working on the family farm and wants to eventually take over the farm. He is a star hockey player. He loves Madonna. He’s gone a bit crazy with his sister as they’ve both gotten belly button piercings. He’s also very into St. Francis of Assisi. He throws out quotes from the saint and wants to emulate his way of life. In fact, Luke’s using that as part of the reason he wants to quit hockey since St. Francis gave up the sports he played. Luke’s also grappling with the idea that he might be gay.

Over the course of the play, Luke and his father have a huge, and ultimately physical fight. Luke gets some sage advice from a quirky and colorful neighbor and he even gets to engage in a couple dream sequences set to Tchaikovsky. Thankfully Luke also ends up with a kindred spirit in John, a new neighbor boy who seems to like many of the same things Luke does.

They play was very engrossing and between reading it and seeing the production stills on 4th Line’s website (some of which appear with this post), made me wish I could go north to see this in person. It looked like a great evening of theatre.

According to playwright Gilbert, Luke was created out of research he did while writing the play. “I interviewed Shane MacKinnon for my research. He is a gay man in his 30s that I knew who had been brought up on a farm in the 90s. It was his story that inspired my play, as he was obsessed with Madonna, and dropped out of sports for instance. He quit because he was uncomfortable in the locker room–I think because the guys turned him on etc, and he didn’t feel comfortable with the male camaraderie that he felt separate from because he was gay.”

MacKinnon, however, was into track and field, not hockey. “I turned this into Luke being a hockey star and quitting because it served the drama and this audience,” said Gilbert. “Hockey is huge in Millbrook and Peterborough, and people follow the teams religiously. Dramatically it made good plot suspense to have Luke reveal early on that he was going to quit hockey, and to have his father, who was living out his hockey dreams through his son, pressure him to not to quit. The audience knows the father is going to come down on him for this and it adds lots of drama to the final scene in act one.”One of the things I liked most about this play was how well rounded Luke was. Sure, he loved Madonna, but he was also a hockey star. Luke wasn’t designed as a stereotypical gay kid and that engaged me in the play all the more. “Basically it’s impossible to create a gay character that is not informed by homophobic stereotypes,” Gilbert said. “We learn from TV that gay men are basically effeminate artistic types, decorators. Of course, this is not true. On the other the hand lots of real gay young men, and the real Luke [MacKinnon], got off on Madonna and Lady Gaga and have bellybutton piercings. I didn’t want Luke to be too stereotypical-—i.e. just a nelly boy who loves his mom-—but on the other hand those elements are real. You have to understand that being ‘out’ as a teenager has a lot to do with your level of effeminacy. Effete boys are forced out of the closet whereas straight acting hockey playing gay boys often stay in the closet until they are out of school and away from their families simply because they can hide. So Luke had to be somewhat effeminate for his dilemma to make sense.”

The other thing that made this play a little different was it use of the outdoor theatre/farm that 4th Line uses to stage its plays. Gilbert took the environment to heart writing the piece, incorporating the farm into the story. “I wrote the play after doing lots of research, more than I usually do for a production,” he said. “I went to see two or three plays at 4th Line, and then consciously worked some observations into the script. First, unlike other plays that I had seen there which often placed other sets on top of the barnyard setting, I wanted to use the barnyard as a setting itself. I love the scene where Luke and his brother pick stones and are actually off in the field doing that, so we are watching them far away yelling at each other as they pick stones. Secondly, I wanted to use some of the animals and the barnyard setting to inform the fantasy sequences. So there is one sequence where a flock of birds is supposed to land on Luke–in the play we were able to get homing pigeons to come out of his cape–and also a moment when John rides in on a horse as a ‘knight in shining armor’ so to speak to rescue Luke. Finally, I noticed that the audience loved musical sequences and that music really helped to bring the play directly to them, so I wrote in two dance/sing-a-long/music sequences for the party.”

Gilbert hoped to leave the audience with two things at the end of St. Francis of Millbrook. To have their minds opened up more about homosexuality and to also give a taste of gay culture. The audiences seem to go for it. “I had a feeling there would be widespread love for the play, because the play is sweet and funny and is directly aimed at that audience,” he said. “I was a little worried that the play’s sexual moments—-when two boys almost have sex, when the older hippie lady is quite frank about sex, and the talk about Madonna—-would turn people off. I watched as all these moments played out with the audience and people had mixed feelings about them sometimes, but overall, the play didn’t shock them too much.

“It pushed their boundaries without turning them off. I was very pleasantly surprised by the fact that the audience loved Luke’s ‘love interest’ riding in on a horse to carry him off. I didn’t know if they would go for that, but they went nuts. And when Neddy knocks out the angry father, the audience loves it so much. It works like an old melodrama or a kids play in those moments, and that’s kinda camp, which is great.”

Another great thing that happened at the final week of performances is that 4th Line encouraged the audience to wear hockey jerseys to show support for the You Can Play project. “The play celebrates community and inclusivity,” said Robert Winslow, 4th Line Theatre’s Artistic Director, “and puts a human face on a very timely social issue. I hope that this play, and initiatives such as You Can Play, will make it easier for young gay men in this era of bullying.”

Editor’s Note: Jeff is once again participating in the CYCLE for the CAUSE, a nearly 300 mile bike ride (September 21-23) to raise funds for HIV/AIDS services provided by NYC’s LGBT Community Center. He’s only a few hundred bucks short of his fundraising goal of $4,000, so please consider kicking in to help him out. Thanks and attaboy, Jeff!

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