Tell Me Before the Sun Explodes | Rock Bottom Productions with bAKEHOUSE

Image by Philip Erbacher

Every few years a movie gets released with a central gay character whose life is tragedy and whose story ends in a tear-jerking death. And every time this reignites a conversation about this seemingly inescapable link between queerness and death. Is it a curse from God? Is it unresolved trauma from the AIDS crisis? Is it pedestrian homophobia? Or is it true?

This new two-hander script by Jacob Parker turns an insightful eye on the alleged association between gay men and death in the beginning and ending of an intergenerational relationship that shouldered its fair share of tragedy and death alongside love and caring. Structured in dual timelines overlapping with echoed lines of dialogue, the script begins when Chris (Joshua Shediak) and Andrew (Tim McGarry) met for the second time at Andrew’s ex’s funeral. What this one evening started was a longterm relationship that ended when Chris met Nick and left Andrew alone again, a mirroring of the ending of his relationship with now-deceased George. Jumping forward in time and Chris is back in Andrew’s life in time for Andrew to reveal he’s dying. Parker is interested in the many connotations and consequences of time from the intergenerational concerns of dating someone older or younger than yourself to feelings of not having enough time, of finding out you’ve run out of time without realising. Time is plastic and elastic, repeating while maintaining a singularity of these two men, together, talking.

While the script and its form was invested in thematic exploration, the dialogue was largely in the mode of a domestic drama with all the hallmarks of a blossoming romance and the same one well past withered. Chris is young, flirtatious, and intrigued by the older, more flamboyant Andrew. And their conversation focused on that larger-than-death personality of Andrew who is cantankerous, self-centred, and needy, waxing lyrical about his feelings on love, death, and fate with the hopes of manipulating Chris into loving him like he wants. There were moments of delicate sophistication like when Andrew attempted to explain the lingering ramifications of trauma from living through the AIDS crisis or when the two men tried to understand each other’s experiences of dating and hooking up in different technological contexts. Otherwise, their relationship was insular, intimately within the realms of a sentimental love story.

Director Hayden Tonazzi honoured the emotions of the script with genuine, believable characterisations and a well-developed dynamic between the actors that reflected both the shyness of beginnings and the familiarity of endings. Additionally, though, Tonazzi drew on the thematic ruminations on time and death for a multilayered and considered production design that added significant impact. The set design by Soham Apte placed Chris and Andrew within a rundown apartment degraded to bare, hole-y floorboards and fabric remnants. This clearly decaying space represented visually the decay of their relationship and the anticipated decay of Anthony’s deteriorating body. Apte further elevated the platform of the floorboards which angled the actors unusually above the front rows of the audience in a symbolic elevation of mundane domesticity to something perhaps more divine. At one point in the story, Chris introduced an interest of his in the comics of superhero Cosmic Man and the mythology of him bending time after the explosion of the sun to warn of the disaster and save the world. Ryan McDonald used the imagery of this in his lighting design with an interstellar mix of warm yellow tones and cold blue-blacks that added immense space and atmosphere to the tiny apartment. While the script mayn’t have reached its pinnacle of emotional movement and meaning, the production design came close to achieving something much larger than the sum of its parts.

In a two-hander that rapidly transitioned between tones and times, the performances were strong and consistent. McGarry, in particular, carried the complicated character of Andrew well with a deft handle of the line between annoying and simply immature or between humorous and bothersome. At the same time, Shediak was a loveable and sympathetic ex with abundant patience but a quick draw on deadpan sarcasm. The two differed enough to keep the momentum developing and engaging and with a penchant for the one-liner that provided relief from the heavy stuff and a believable deflection in conversation. If this particular script felt unsatisfying, then there was certainly a sense that Shediak and McGarry had more to offer in less repetitious circumstances.

Those cynical like Andrew will see this production as another example of gay tragedy like Holding the Man but others will attune to its resonance with Australia’s comfort in domestic dramas like Things I Know to Be True or time-bending to reckon with trauma like When the Rain Stops Falling or Dead Skin. Wherever the script fits, Tonazzi’s production was insightful and undaunted.

Tell Me Before the Sun Explodes is running at Kings Cross Theatre from May 4th – 15th

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