Writer: J. Julian Christopher
Director: Lou Moreno
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell
The town of Coober Pedy is located in Australia’s arid interior, where daytime temperatures are brutally hot and dust storms are not uncommon. When European colonizers first settled the area to mine opals, they found that they could escape the desert heat by building dwellings in man-made underground holes. Today over half the town’s inhabitants live underground. An underground bunker in Coober Pedy is the setting for INTAR Theatre’s latest offering, Bundle of Sticks, written by J. Julian Christopher and directed by Lou Moreno.
The play tells the story of five men who travel to Coober Pedy from different parts of the world for a program at The Sticks, a conversion therapy center. The program is operated by Otto (Laura Jordan), a descendent of Australian politician Walter Nairn. He opens the play with a lecture on the evils of homosexuality and the virtues of traditional gender roles. Soon after, we meet the participants in this conversion therapy session. There’s Gemi (Zo Tipp) young Indonesian man who is resistant to conversion but terrified of his government’s treatment of the LGBTQ population. Tyree (Hope Ward) is an African-American Army veteran who had a connection with Gemi before arriving at The Sticks. Francisco (Melissa Navia) is a Dominican man who has been to The Sticks before with no luck in becoming heterosexual. Abram (Fleece), an Orthodox Jewish man and Gregos (Lucille Duncan), a well-muscled drag queen from Greece, are at The Sticks trying to change in order to save their marriages. All of these men have entered conversion therapy somewhat willingly, but are unprepared for Otto’s methods or for the tension building in the underground bunker. Coober Pedy’s history butts up against Otto’s heterosexist sensibilities when visions of a rainbow serpent work their way into the men’s dreams, challenging the notion that they need to be something other than what they are.
Bundle of Sticks features exceptional performances and stellar design. While all of the characters are cis men, all the performers are women, trans, or non-binary individuals, driving home the ways that Otto’s homophobic rhetoric is deeply rooted in misogyny. All of the actors are quite strong, especially Melissa Navia as Francisco. To describe Meghan E. Healy’s costumes in detail would spoil some surprises, but they allow the actors to literally wear their masculinity. Healy was also responsible for the set design; her work evokes the sense of the underground bunker, while Harbour Edney’s lighting transforms the space to take us aboveground. Jesse Mandapat’s sound design contributes to the creation of the atmosphere, especially when Otto opens the bunker to a sandstorm.
Conversion therapy is most often discussed in reference to teens who are forced to go by their families. Bundle of Sticks offers us another viewpoint by depicting men who go of their own volition, hoping to cure what Otto calls their “perversion.” J. Julian Christopher’s script handles issues of self-acceptance and internalized homophobia with sensitivity and humor. There are points where the character of Gemi feels inconsistent—at one point he tells Tyree that he thinks a failure to change, to “become straight”, will result in imprisonment, torture, and possibly death at home in Indonesia, but that terror is never enough to motivate him to take Otto’s methods seriously. On the whole, though, this play is timely and engaging.
Runs until 22 March 2020 | Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg