backstage (2006-38)


Human Remains has a really long… title

by Leslie Wylie

It’s opening night of the Actors Co-op’s newest production. Onstage, a moaning, panting woman is on the receiving end of her first lesbian sexual experience. Meanwhile, somewhere in the distance, a husband is cheating on his wife, a gay teenager is dropping his pants and bending over, and a serial killer with a reputation for raping and mutilating women is on the prowl. A dominatrix prostitute narrates the whole sordid affair from above. She’s clad in fishnet thigh-highs and an apple-squeezer corset, and she might not be wearing a skirt. It’s hard to tell from here.

But clothes, schmoze, right? I knew the play, Unidentified Human Remains and the Nature of True Love, by Canadian playwright Brad Fraser, was going to be controversial. The Actors Co-op was nice enough to give the city an honest head’s up. “If you thought [season opener] Hedwig walked on the wild side, just wait until you see our next show!” the press release exclaimed, dutifully adding: “This play contains adult language, nudity, and action of a graphic sexual nature. It is not suitable for those who may be offended or children.”

Hey, I’m all for pushing some envelopes. I’ve seen drag shows and burlesque shows and I see myself in my own birthday suit every day. Look—boobs! So what? For me, there are few pleasures greater than watching a Bible-belt city squirm a little bit in its pew. I…see…naked… people. Big deal.

OK, I’ll be honest. I saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch earlier this summer, and it made me turn a few shades of hot pink that I previously didn’t know existed on the color wheel. That Joseph Beuerlein fellow, who played Hedwig and is now the lead-guy in Human Remains , sure is feisty, and he sure isn’t afraid to give a lap dance to men in the audience. So to be honest, I was just a little intimidated going into this one. Not sweating. Just perspiring.

I was scared not just for myself, but for the unsuspecting guy next to me I’d drug along as my date, and for that elderly couple sitting in the corner, and for the mother of the girl who’ll be performing the role of “Prostitute” in tonight’s production, and for Co-op Executive Artistic Director Amy Hubbard, because if your daughter’s kindergarten teacher catches wind of this, you’re never going to live it down, and for my friend Mandi, whom I’ve never really thought of in the context of a lesbian sex scene before, but what the heck, there’s a first time for everything. And for the record, Mandi, I’m impressed.

Let’s review.

Human Remains is the story of a group of sexually frustrated adults, each of whom is wrestling with the concept of love as it manifests itself in an environment of fear. There’s Candy (Mandi Lawson), a woman desired by men and women alike but who has eyes only for her Twinkies; her cynical gay roommate David (Joseph Beuerlein), who’s torn between a pseudo-crush on teenager Kane (Joseph Samuel Wright) and his troubled best friend Bernie (Shane Chuvalas); the cloyingly lovey-dovey lesbian Jerri (Sarah Campbell) and bumblingly bland Robert (Jacques Durand), both of whom find themselves pining for the emotionally unavailable Candy; and Benita (Laurel Hackworth), a prostitute with psychic powers who stitches the play’s darker subplot together with a series of urban myths, each bloodier than the last.  

So basically, we have this big, sexually ambiguous soap opera, with the bedroom scenes out in the open. And while it’s certainly risqué, it’s actually toned down a bit from Director Tony Cedeno’s earlier, much more naked ambitions—which turns out to be the saving grace of the play. Human Remains is a case study in why parts can be greater than a whole, kind of like how a slit up the thigh of a woman’s cocktail dress can be more intriguing than that same thigh completely naked. OK, maybe you don’t believe me, but get your head out of the gutter already. It’s called filling in the blanks, kids. It’s called imagination, and it’s the eggs, milk and sugar of that cupcake we like to call desire.

For instance, when it comes to sex, what is it we find so intriguing? The whole package? Or can the action, the sound, the insinuation stand on its own two feet, leaving those in the audience to battle out the remainder of the scenario in his or her own head—a much more frightening, and titillating, place to be, I expect.  

Same when it comes to violence: Is the blood-soaked shirt more frightening than the knife fight? Is the spoken memory of bedside razors and a woman’s throat slit open more frightening than an actress feigning death? Human Remains transcends the audience’s cultural desensitization not by revealing more, but by revealing less. (Only a little less, granted, but enough.)

If it was a movie, someone pointed out, it wouldn’t be a big deal, amounting to your typical rated-R thriller laced with the appropriate amounts of violence and sex. So why, when the screen is removed that would otherwise separate the audience from the action, does voyeurism become so uncomfortable?

Maybe it’s because sitting in our cushy seats at the Cineplex, hands buried in a bag of popcorn, our real lives don’t feel threatened by the fake one behind the screen. Theater is a reminder of the triumph of personal interaction and an affirmation that there’s still such a thing as “too close for comfort.” And every now and again, it’s OK to push that envelope, just so long as we remember that the envelope is there for a reason. If it wasn’t there, see, what would we have to push? m

What: Actor’s Co-op presents Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love