Alex Blaze

Notes from the Parisian Gay and Lesbian Theater Festival: Penetrator

Filed By Alex Blaze | April 18, 2009 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: lesbian, paris, parisian gay and lesbian theater festival, penetrator, theater, transgender, transsexual

Last penetratoraffiche.JPGnight I went to see Penetrator at the Parisian Gay and Lesbian Theater Festival. (See the festival schedule for more information about programming.)

The play is about two young, straight hipsters in Scotland who share an apartment. Their lazy lives are interrupted by the return of an old school friend who went off to fight in Iraq, who comes back troubled and thinking he's being followed by a mysterious group known as the "Penetrators." He claims that they raped him and now want to keep him quiet. Billed as a "dark comedy," this play attempts to tackle desire and psychosis, as well as the two hipsters' inability to deal with a harsher reality.

I won't get into much of a traditional review, but I did wonder upon leaving the theater why this was included in a "gay and lesbian" theater festival, and what the boundaries of those words are. None of the characters are (openly) gay or bisexual, and the only relationships with homosexuality in this play are the description of rape, a memory of two of the characters having played together at camp when they were younger, and a few "you're queer"s and "that's so gay"s thrown around.

It got me to thinking about an Italian operetta I saw downtown about a month ago in which some of the actors were men, some were women, but they were all dressed as women and played female roles. There wasn't much in terms of setting, like a specific place or time, and many of the scenes flowed in and out of dreams and memories. Even with all the cross-dressing going on, it would have been hard to label the characters as "transsexual" or "transgender," mainly because the abstract nature of the operetta prevented us from knowing too much (or really anything) in terms of how the characters lived or identified.

Anyway, I was surprised to see that sort of content in a show that wasn't directed at an LGBT audience - it was showing in one of the most chic theaters in downtown Paris. The high-brow theater set is known for brushing off pretty much anything that isn't heterosexual as "not universal." But then I realized that the saving grace was probably the fact that the cross-dressing was symbolic and abstract, making it "universal" in a way that straight/cis people can handle.

Sodomy and same-sex attraction are used in much the same way in Penetrator. I'd be the last person to try to set up some sort of filter for these sorts of events, but is buttsex the basic requirement for something being considered "gay"? Does "LGBT" art have to represent something recognizable as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or transsexual in contemporary culture or does it just have to have some link to same-sex attraction or sex or men and women putting on the clothes of the opposite sex? If the artist is LGBT, is that enough? (I don't know about the writers of either of these plays.)

I'm not asking any of these questions because I have the answers, but because I do want to hear y'all's opinions.

Aside from those questions, Penetrator was interesting. It invokes some of the most cliché of clichés of British humor, and while it's generally not my thing, lots of other people in the theater laughed. The dialogue was sharp and Fabien Ducommun's performance as Alan was energetic and bold. It was a good time.

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You said that the play "attempts to tackle desire and psychosis...." Did you get a sense that the desire they addressed was in any way queer? If not, I'd be scratching my head about why it was included as well.

I'm going to morph your question into what is gay film? You could probably expand that question to cover any creative enterprise. Are Mommy Dearest and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane gay films? Maybe not explicitly, but they are in the eyes of gay men of a certain generation very much part of gay culture. Does Martin Sheen as President Bartlett telling off a Dr Laura type qualify The West Wing as gay television? What about John Waters appearing on the Simpsons?

In Howard's End there is no explicit gay theme or story line. But Tibby is at least in my mind portrayed as being gay. Or maybe you just have to want it enough.

So I wouldn't say that a film has to be explicitly gay to qualify, but it has to address a gay sensibility in more than a passing fashion to do so.

And that approach has problems of its own.

What is "gay sensibility"? The term implies that we might somehow be monolithic.

Without a doubt. The whole endeavor if hamfistedly done is fraught with peril. Which is why I would hope that GLBT film festivals and the like would be juried with the jury made up of a wide cross section of our communities.

Honestly, that's one of the most meaningless sentences I've written in a while. Thanks for pointing it out.

Because as my old creative writing workshop instructor used to say, "A story is characters wanting." Yup. Desire really is a part of every work of fiction, when you think about it.

Anyway, the desire was of the soldier coming back and wanting friendship like before, which includes a little flashback to when he and one of the hipsters masturbated each other when they were kids. But, really, that's such a small part of this play it would hardly seem to make it all gay.

Otherwise, the psychosis is partly that this guy thinks/says that he was raped by other men. I dunno, that was probably it. That and the fact that one of the actors seemed pretty gay even though his character wasn't (openly, at least).

I'm also wondering if I would have written this at all about a play that was explicitly about a transgender person, with no same-sex desire at all. Even though the festival is "Gay and Lesbian," would people (like me) have even noticed? I guess we're just really, really used to "gay and lesbian" being an antiquated way of saying "LGBT" that that wouldn't even raise a red flag.