Bundle of Sticks Imagines the Bizarre Cult of Gay Conversion Therapy
J. Julian Christopher's new play takes place in an underground camp in the heart of Australia.
Bundle of Sticks, J. Julian Christopher's wildly inventive (and occasionally nonsensical) new play at INTAR Theatre, opens with an ahistorical slideshow about the cave men. Otto Nairn (Laura Jordan) is the proprietor of a gay conversion retreat called "The Sticks," and he tells us why he so admires our cave-dwelling ancestors: "This was a universe dedicated to the natural expansion of muscular hairy thighs creating an unobstructed kinesphere for low hangers." Not to put too fine a point on it, he adds, "There were no pansy Cro-Magnons."
Appropriately, the Sticks is located in an underground cave (or "dugout") in the opal mining town of Coober Pedy, Australia. Meghan E. Healey designs the set to make it feel as though we're in an underground bunker, while sound designer Jesse Mandapat infuses the space with creepy noises and unsettling music.
The Sticks draws clients from all over the world who are looking to change their sexuality: There's Indonesian trust-funder Gemi (Zo Tipp) and his American soldier boyfriend, Tyree (a convincingly butch Hope Ward). Neither really believes in the program, but Gemi's family will disinherit him if he doesn't go. Abram (Fleece) is a middle-aged Soviet refugee whose wife told him to go, or she would divorce him. Greek Adonis Gregos (Lucille Duncan) has a fiancée who is perhaps a little too supportive of his budding drag career, but he is still uncomfortable with it — so he checks into the Sticks. Dominican barman Francisco (Melissa Navia) is a return customer, having failed to beat the gay out of himself on the first visit.
Otto instructs them to strip down to their skivvies and greet one another by shaking members. He then performs an "erection check" as a barometer of progress. Other routines include crashing through a human wall to seize two plums that symbolically represent testicles, and staring at one another's genitals to the point of desensitization. Otto oversees all of this with a cruel grin and an unquestionable air of authority (Jordan conveys this with chilling precision). Does anyone really think any of this will make these men straight? Or will it just endow them with baroque kinks and fantasies (many involving Gregos)?
Some viewers are likely to be appalled by the events of Bundle of Sticks (the title, as any bullied gay boy can tell you, is the Oxford dictionary definition of the word "faggot"). Personally, I'm quite familiar with this world of arrogant gurus hawking ridiculous exercises and engaging in emotional manipulation for the sake of "the work" — I too attended drama school. At its heart, this is a play about cult dynamics, and if it was played (ahem) straight, it would serve as a compelling after-school special about the dangerous scam that is gay conversation therapy. But Christopher and director Lou Moreno are after bigger game in a production that regularly sacrifices clarity for the sake of ambition.
You may have noticed that all of these gay male characters are portrayed by actors who are not men, instantly endowing the play with a level of frivolity. Drag is funny, and if we're not laughing at the performances, the sparkly multicolored phalli the actors wear on their nude body suits pushes us over the edge (whimsical design on a budget by Healey). Gregos's costume (which features thick black body hair) makes a particularly strong impression. This is a joyous kind of nontraditional casting, but does it risk trivializing a serious issue when billions of people around the world are still hostile to homosexuality, and think it is a deviance that can be corrected?
Small vignettes allow us to see the home lives of each of these men, and committed performances by the actors give that side of the story the seriousness it deserves. Francisco's scene (which features a confrontation with his exasperated daughter) is particularly moving. Navia completely inhabits Francisco's suppressed desire and subsequent shame, and we momentarily forget that we're watching a woman.
Not all of the performances are so convincing: In addition to playing Gemi, Tipp also plays the Rainbow Serpent, a mythological creature that slithers forth from the Outback to tempt men into surrendering to their homosexual desires. Sunday school symbology aside, it's a role that Christopher never fully fleshes out, leaving Tipp to flounder in a performance that is neither alluring nor menacing: What's the point of a big gay snake that doesn't even sport a superlatively sibilant "s"?
There are other half-drawn curlicues: A second-act scene that attempts to tie Otto's behavior with the actions of his colonizing ancestor has the underripe feel of a master's thesis destined to be recycled into a salon.com "think piece." It certainly isn't given much thought here.
Still, there is much to admire and enjoy about Bundle of Sticks, especially in its uninhibited imagination and resourceful theatricality. I'd rather see a messy but memorable show like this than a perfectly polished (and perfectly forgettable) gem.