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Theater review: ‘Brotherhood’ confronts toxic masculinity

(Courtesy of Frank Chen)

As Stanford’s student-written theater scene continues to steady itself on newfound legs, “Brotherhood” (an original play by Louis McWilliams ’16) has emerged as a continuation of McWilliams’ submission to Ram’s Head’s Original Winter One Acts earlier this year. Initially titled “Journey into Manhood,” the show is a foray into the world of four men struggling to confront their own sexualities – exploring the insidious violence of an anti-gay methodology rooted not in outright bigotry, but in the more subtle approach of warmth, kindness and the dangerous pretext of genuine concern.

The story unfolds within the walls of a cabin in the woods – the site of a gay conversion weekend retreat program, where a group of gay and questioning men gather to foster “masculine” connections and overcome various forms of temptation. In the conference hall setting of Elliot Program Center, we are fully immersed in this world. The show begins with a simple name game: a ball is tossed from participant to participant, and we, the audience, are introduced to each of them – PJ (the military man), Trevor (a closeted Mormon), Noam (the law student), Justin (a college-bound teen) and the two counselors determined to “cure” them.

The program’s psychologist, played by Andre Amarotico ’16, begins by introducing us to the contentious logic behind his approach. Homosexuality is merely a myth, he argues – a fiction designed to combat flaws in emotional development caused by a lack of platonic intimacy between men. The program is an effort to “restore” this sense of man-to-man connection, and to construct a vision of masculinity that fundamentally rejects the validity of homoerotic love. It is a line of thought reminiscent of closeted youth struggling to make sense of their feelings – hoping against hope that their urges are not a testament to the complexity of human sexuality, but a manifestation of manly affection gone awry. Amarotico is (as always) a pleasure to watch, internalizing with complete sincerity the archaic narrative of sexuality being a choice. His monologues, under the guise of science, read as a cry into the ether for some sense of autonomy – some control over the way in which society treats him.

The story really begins, however, when Justin (Will Funk ’16) shares an impassioned kiss with Trevor (Jeff Bennett, ’17) beneath the camp’s starry sky – reawakening long-suppressed feelings in a man deeply committed to God, his wife, and the preservation of his sheltered lifestyle. Justin conveys the restless frustration of a boy unconvinced by the adults around him; Trevor, the desperation of a man trying to cling to his newfound heterosexuality. Though somewhat generic, each character feels at home in the bizarre setting McWilliams has created. Bennett is particularly moving – from his nuanced reactions, to the subtle looks that grace his eyes, to the positioning of his hands as he speaks, every part of him is engaged. The show ends with him returning to his old life; Justin, alone in his bedroom, puts on a dress and makeup as a recording of Trevor talking about the effectiveness of the camp streams in the background.

Like the rest of the men in the group, Trevor’s ability to conform to heterosexual paradigms of manhood is, in large part, facilitated by his status as a white, cisgender, able-bodied male – an aspect of the retreat’s demographic which is alluded to, but never quite confronted head-on. When watching “Brotherhood,” it is crucial to remember that the story does not represent a diverse array of experiences, but a very specific subset of gay Americans. The activities we are shown are catered to a privileged community; the group’s discussions feel somewhat strained, and there is a weirdness to the entire camp that comes hand-in-hand with white, upper-class, clinical approaches to intimacy.

Under the direction of Elizabeth Knarr ’16, the show is dynamically staged. Physical interactions between the counselors and their campers are extremely uncomfortable throughout the piece, evoking, without pathologizing, a tension between the tangible reality of the touch and the hyper-masculine value system accepted by each character. At the end of one hugging exercise, the four men refuse to let go of one another as a pop rendition of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” fills the cabin. The life coach of the group, played by Austin Caldwell ‘15 (who gracefully surpasses his age in the role), rests his hands on each man’s shoulder when he speaks to them, letting his hands linger a few moments after we’ve begun to feel uneasy. When listing qualities of masculinity, the men are instructed to replace their use of the word “aggressive” with the word “assertive” – despite the anger that surfaces when they begin to probe into one another’s pasts.

While this immersive experience lends itself to many unique opportunities for engagement – bearing witness to the most intimate, awkward and tragic moments of the retreat – it also comes dangerously close to reinforcing problematic performer-audience dynamics. More than anything, this piece is one which would have benefitted greatly from the presence of more queer people in the room, both on and off stage. The dialogue, though powerful and natural, leaves PJ and Noam (played by Sebastian Sanchez ’17 and Publio Adrianza ’15) woefully underdeveloped and especially vulnerable to the heterosexual gaze. What might read as a searing critique of whiteness, class and religion to a queer audience runs the risk of looking like a satire about the characters themselves in front of a straight audience – a problem which arises almost constantly in this kind of work.

Though certainly situated within a minefield of potential problems, McWilliams’ play confronts, in so many ways, an iteration of masculinity which is rarely portrayed in Stanford theater. With its moving prose and remarkable acting, “Brotherhood” challenges us to bear witness to the subtle violence of good intentions, and the everyday tragedy of marginalized people plastering bandages onto wounds that will continue to go untreated.

 

Contact Madelaine Bixler at mbixler ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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