One character in Elena Belyea’s new play Cleave explains the concept of words that are autoantonyms – words that have two near-opposite meanings, like screen, fast, or bound. This gives the viewer a hint toward unpacking the play’s title, as it may refer to characters clinging together or being split apart, drawing towards new choices in their lives or detaching from unwanted ones.
Like many of my favourite stories on stage, on screen, or in library books, the narrative of Cleave shows the separate but intersecting objectives of several characters through a cusp time in their lives. Four of the characters are part of a family, parents (Dave Horak and Elena Porter) who turn out to have their own secret unhappy histories and teenage children (Emma Houghton and Luc Tellier). I was particularly delighted by the subtlety of Emma Houghton’s character journey, as I had misjudged her on first appearance as a sulky shallow cheerleader wheedling money out of her dad for new workout clothes in which to make an impression.
The other two characters are a new kid at school, 17 year old Aaron who is intersex and trans (Jordan Fowlie), and his therapist. As he explains to his new therapist (Natasha Napoleao) in the first scene, he’s moved away from his parents in order to avoid the stigma of transition in a small town and in order to get the therapist’s recommendation he needs before gender-affirming surgery. The therapy scenes provide useful exposition of the background concepts of intersex and trans lives. Sometimes Aaron is explaining things to his therapist and sometimes she is providing vocabulary and information to the audience while connecting with Aaron. They also give important insight into Aaron’s thoughtful sarcastic character by providing a context in which he is relatively open, compared to his careful cautious demeanour at school, with his new friend’s family, and in another situation.
I loved the scenes with the two outsider boys sitting on the school steps not quite looking at each other and not rushing into friendship. And the wordless gestures of trust on both sides of that relationship in the final scene moved me immensely. I can imagine happy endings in the future for at least some of the characters, but the play ends appropriately with the loose ends not all tied up.
I also want to write about another scene that horrified me and hypnotized me in ways that also thrilled me as a fan of compelling stories. But I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else. So I will put a brief comment about it at the end of this post.
Cleave is playing at the Backstage Theatre until Saturday April 7th. There is an allowance of Pay-What-You-Can tickets available at the door for every performance.
The two most uncomfortably-transgressive sex or sex-adjacent scenes I have ever seen on Edmonton stages – on any stages – have both involved the same actor. In both cases I had a thought process like “Oh no, they’re not going to – wow, they really are – that’s awful – and why is it hot at the same time?” And in both cases, the intimacy was completely necessary and justified by the text and I couldn’t not watch.