The Shooting Stage
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 26, 2005
Pedophilia feels like such a fundamental violation of the way humans are supposed to behave—it takes a village to raise a child, and all that: on some level, aren't all grown-ups culpable for the well-being of all children? So it's an uncomfortable subject for a play; The Shooting Stage, which dances around pedophilia and other provoking issues of sexuality and violence, is almost creepy at times, but it gets under your skin.
The question is, when is something obscene? Is a photo of an obviously aroused 16-year old boy wearing a dress child pornography? Is it if the person who took the photo is a 14-year-old friend of the subject? Is it if, 25 years later, the now grown-up taker of said photo displays it with other photos in a gallery? Is the same man's photograph of his baby goddaughter, naked in a bathtub, obscene?
Is a 16-year-old boy old enough to consent to sex? If I told you that the boy from that first photo was an actor in a popular TV show and was having sex regularly with his producer, would that be child abuse or a love affair? If I added that when the boy grew into a man—a successful lawyer, now, with a recently deceased wife and a teenage son—who entered into a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old boy he picked up at a video arcade—would that be child abuse?
If a 16-year-old boy (a different one, now) dressed up in a white evening dress and feather boa and lip-synched "I Will Survive" at a gay club, we'd feel pretty sure that he's pretty sure about his sexuality. But if a friend of his from school, who has been giving off all kinds of ambiguous signals, saw him at the club and then let him do oral sex on him—is the friend gay? Is a boy who has sex regularly with an adult gay? Is the adult in that pair gay?
These labels all mean different things and have different consequences. In The Shooting Stage, they are vital, not only because they influence the ways the various characters understand themselves—which is very important—but also because in some cases they determine who goes to jail and who gets to go on doing what he does with impunity.
The Shooting Stage is structured kind of like a suspense thriller, which is why I have been deliberately vague in identifying who's who and what the relationships are among the five men—two adults, three teenage boys—who are its subjects. Playwright Michael Lewis Maclennan prods and pokes around the secrets and desires of his characters without finally revealing much about them except the details, which often feel sordid, of their sexual lives. As a result, a play that might have delved into the psychologies of these men instead stays on the surface of their personalities, eventually dissipating into melodrama just when it feels like it might turn insightful. That's a disappointment, though it doesn't make this compellingly off-putting work any less watchable.
Director John Pinckard has staged the American debut of this 1999 Canadian play tautly and stylishly, if also a bit portentously. He uses the deep playing space at 45 Below to generally good effect, keeping some major set pieces that designate different locations in place throughout, and designating the very furthest reach of the stage as a sort of dream state where characters desires are realized, sometimes literally and sometimes fantastically (and sometimes, as in the drag number, a bit of both). He feeds the audience's prurient instincts in a really unsettling manner that I think is deliberate in some of the play's more sexually charged scenes: one depicting two of the teenage boys lifting weights together, for example, feels enough like soft porn to be discomfiting.
The spare set is by Jason Lajka, Robert W. Henderson, Jr.'s lighting is suitably moody, and Alexis Hadsall's costumes are appropriate. The cast is anchored by two experienced actors, Ben Masur as the photographer on trial for obscenity and Christopher Durham as the lawyer who is helping him behind-the-scenes with his case. They both turn in nuanced, surprisingly sympathetically, complex performances. The younger cast members—Robin Lord Taylor, Noah Peters, and Hunter Gilmore—are not as effective, but note that Maclennan hasn't given them roles with much depth to play.
Does The Shooting Stage, to borrow a phrase from the world of obscenity hearings, have redeeming social value? I don't know: it's riveting in its way, but by not finally pushing beneath the surfaces of its damaged adult characters, I'm not sure how much it has to tell us about the issues it raises. I felt manipulated more than enlightened when it was over. But it certainly put some provocative questions into my head, about subjects I don't tend to want to think much about.