Nomenil's debut production seven years ago, Pushin' Up Roses, made it pretty clear that they did not want to be taken as "theater artists." With this campy, lowbrow queer coming-of-age melodrama, cockily defiant and vulgarly silly, Nomenil seemed to indicate they hated theater altogether and hoped their show might finish it off for good.
But like the rest of us, Nomenil is inexorably drawn toward what it professes to despise: it couldn't escape the clutches of bourgeois sentimentality. As Pushin' Up Roses progressed, its impudence fell by the wayside, replaced by the kind of overearnest mawkishness mainstream theater employs to get audiences to "identify" with characters. It seemed playwrights Allen Conkle and Courtney Evans felt they had to justify their transgressive foolishness with a tidy, heartfelt conclusion that would be reassuring to mom and dad, ending up trapped by the very rules they'd worked so hard to destroy.
But Nomenil's second show--Eat Your Art Out, produced later that year--was unapologetically outrageous, trashy, vicious, fey, and ridiculous from start to finish, banishing all vestiges of middle-class propriety. Stories and characters weren't developed neatly or even comprehensibly; they spun out of control and exploded. And the company has maintained this demanding standard ever since, despite a general lack of attention from critics and audiences. Even when a Nomenil show was weak, it never compromised.
The company's newest piece, Faggot Bunny Daddy, takes a different direction. Still effusive and idiosyncratic, it jettisons narrative structure entirely in favor of a hyper-queer confessional cabaret and nudie show, written by Conkle in collaboration with Nomenil members. Under Conkle's direction, seven gay men spend a little over an hour in underwear and/or swimsuits remembering, reenacting, and refashioning their relationships with their fathers. It's a stark, stripped-down evening in sharp contrast to the excessive romps Nomenil has staged in the past. Yet in reinventing itself, the company falls prey once again to received artistic notions.
Faggot Bunny Daddy gives its performers no surreal fantasy world in which to hide; in fact, the men rarely even disappear into characters. Instead they stand before us, exposed physically and emotionally. But since this is a Nomenil show, it's not just personal confession. The guys camp it up in self-consciously awful production numbers; getting the ball rolling is a Catholicized, Busby Berkeley-esque "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" in Speedos. Jesus and Satan pair up in a series of tempestuous and seductive dances, a man in a bunny suit strips naked while a hunter points a rifle at his head, a hulking leather daddy sings the Lord's Prayer while his boy is put into restraints, and an uberswish named Francis minces onstage periodically to remind us that all gay men are child molesters, husband stealers, and communists.
These fanciful asides function as the connective tissue between the men's musings on their fathers. Usually we catch these stories in brief snatches rather than the long, belabored speeches common in gay fare--we watch an adolescent boy try to reason with his intolerant father in three short scenes, for example. But the stories that make up the bulk of the evening will be familiar to anyone who's attended much gay theater: the fathers are generally indifferent toward or contemptuous of their gay sons, who suffer inordinately as a result.
In the past Conkle has pushed his actors to adopt absurd, highly stylized personae. But here he hardly directs the cast at all. The men speak candidly, awkwardly, often as though they've barely rehearsed their lines. In a shrewd move Conkle leaves the men--and himself, also a cast member--somewhat stranded onstage, providing no actorly tricks, so that everyone confronts his material in a raw state. And since most of the performers seem green, the effect is quite powerful; they're as clumsy, self-conscious, and ill at ease as anyone should be standing nearly naked before strangers and sharing difficult personal stories. At times uncomfortable to watch, the show also conveys a powerful honesty; it seems the act of performing this piece can be as traumatic as dealing with a disdainful father.
While sometimes the stories are quite moving, they're also disappointingly narrow. With rare exception, the men talk about feeling inadequately masculine next to their fathers or about the ways their fathers expressed their contempt for their sons' homosexuality. Again and again the performers indicate the guilt, shame, and self-loathing they felt growing up "different"--and during these sections Nomenil marches in lockstep with much of mainstream gay theater; plummeting into self-pity, Faggot Bunny Daddy begins to feel like a standard-issue "gay play," doing little to challenge or provoke.
Yet the fanciful connective scenes have potential, leading us into unfamiliar territory. Exploring the fetish of the leather daddy among men abandoned by their fathers holds real promise, as does a deeper examination of patriarchal Christian iconography, which now is suggested in a few brief but arresting scenes.
In the show's most startling moment, a defiant young man insists that "Jesus had a pretty nice cock...I wouldn't doubt it if Jesus sucked a dick himself, or at least had one of those friggin' disciples suck on his for a while." Getting no response from the audience, he screams, "You faggots out there are fucking homophobes!" A moment like this forces audience members to grapple with difficult emotions and beliefs, to think in new and perhaps uncomfortable ways. It's the kind of cultural work that Nomenil usually does, and does well.