If you are someone who can regulate their emotions and you consciously decide to go watch Zee Zee Theatre’s Men Express Their Feelings, the following 90 minutes will be excruciatingly painful—because this is exactly how men learn to express their feelings.
Although at the full-house opening night, the audience was able to see the humour past the pain, giving a standing ovation much to the delight of the production who put on a show in-person after exactly two years due to the pandemic.
The only person who can write such a masterful play on men is Sunny Drake, a well-regarded trans playwright in Canada, who “has been studying masculinity [his] entire life.”
The appearance of two brown and white father-son duos in a locker room—one so convincing that I could actually smell it—was enough to make me recoil in trepidation. Was Raj, the queer brown son, going to be outed by Brad, the violent and closeted homophobe… again?
I was immediately transported back to when I first watched Sex Education, hoping for a better tale than the depiction of queerness rooted in trauma and violence, disappointed with Adam and Eric being caught in the tired old trope.
But Brad was no Adam, and Raj was certainly not an Eric. Queerness was far from a cliché in this well-produced comedy.
The four men were locked in the foul-smelling dressing room by Miss Skinner, a silent character who forced the two fathers, Mr. Sharma and Mr. Bacon, to reconcile after the two had gotten into a good ol’ fashioned parking lot fist fight. By way of several homoerotic flashback scenes, we finally get to the root cause of the brawl—every man’s inability to articulate his emotions.
Referring to the “feelings chart”, the only tool at the male psyche’s disposal, Mr. Sharma tries to unpack his emasculation that stems from his wife’s higher income, as Mr. Bacon embodies the worst possible traits of every hockey dad I’ve ever met—sexism, racism, homophobia, weaponized incompetence, anger issues, and the most repressed, toxic flavour of masculinity that exists. However, both the characters seamlessly weave in and out of the pain and the absurdity of it all.
What’s an exploration of masculinity without dipping your toes in some classic fear of queerness, one which is ultimately rooted in misogyny?
Half of the high school boys’ sexual awakening is entrenched in the typical boyish, rogue locker-room-handjobs that don’t count as gay; the other half actually engaging with a much tender, affectionate, and an alternatively possible lovingness for one another.
Luckily, the acceptance of their little pansexual experience isn’t the centrepiece to overcoming this pain the men feel—rather it is simply a part of the narrative arc that redeems them. In fact, Brad, convincingly played by Quinn Churchill and his hockey bro flow, was able to just go back to trying to be more… successfully intimate with his ex-girlfriend.
Some of both the most outrageously funny jokes, and the most serious conversations are born out of the brownness of it all—be it the father’s imagination of homosexuality in which the boys intimately dance to Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’s title track, or the confrontation of racial slurs like “shit stain” that go untouched in hockey culture.
Call me biased, but Ishan Sandhu’s portrayal of Raj steals the show. The ability to embody a queer brown dude within the confines of a sport symbolic of Canadian nationalism, navigating two culturally different hilarities, all the while dismissing queer stereotypes and the need for male validation from his dick-ish sexual endeavour—in the span of 90 minutes—is no easy undertaking.
Yet, it’s one he’s able to successfully accomplish, given the actor's own lived experiences.
“Going to an all-boys boarding school in India, most of my first sexual experiences were with guys. For a long time I held that in—like the screenplay, it was brushed under the carpet,” he said.
“Raj is someone who is a bit more open than I was in high school, so it was definitely a challenge to come into this character. Doing this play makes me think about how life could have been more different for so many of us.”
If you don’t find Sandhu’s acting convincing, which doesn’t seem all that likely, the costume design of the production done by Donnie Tejani, especially for the fathers, is the epitome of attention to detail.
I have seen Mr. Sharma dressed in khakis, an ill-fitting cardigan, and his brown dress shoes trying to park his minivan at the Real Canadian Superstore before. I have watched his jeans (that are way too long for this short man) touch the ground before his dusty hiking shoes, as Mr. Bacon steps out of his obnoxiously large Ford F-150, in his tattered sleeveless vest, ready to fight Mr. Sharma for stealing his parking spot. I swear—I have seen this fist fight in real life before.
For the love of men, and to get a taste of what they could alternatively be doing with all those pent up emotions they refuse to acknowledge—you wouldn’t want to miss this.
Men Express Their Feelings runs until April 3rd, with an ASL interpretation on March 24th. Go check out firehallartscentre.ca for tickets and more information.
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