Comment: The Real Poems

by Lynn on September 7, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Here for Now Theatre, Falstaff Family Centre, Stratford, Ont. until Sept. 11, 2022.

Written and performed by Robert McQueen

Composer/musician, Laura Burton

Co-Directors, Damien Atkins and Andrew Kushnir

Lighting and sound by Stephen Degenstein

Because this is billed as a workshop production, I am just commenting and not formally ‘reviewing.’ That said, please see this special, moving, touching production. The sensitive care and detail in realizing the story of these wonderful original poems is a gift, and is presented by Here for Now Theatre, that does this kind of work as a matter of course.

Robert McQueen began to work on these poems during the lockdown. The time was there and the memories and the need to record them. The premise was simple: to write out his ‘experiences as a young queer man, living between Vancouver and New York City during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s.

The Real Poems is spoken witness to the joy of youth, discovery and wild adventure. It is a memorial to the lives of colleagues, lovers and friends lost.”

Robert McQueen and his composer/accompanist, Laura Burton enter the space together. He is dressed in a crisp shirt and pants and is barefoot. I love that respectful ritual of being barefoot on the stage. Laura Burton is casually/smartly dressed and sits at her piano and as always, is smiling. She is focused on Robert McQueen, listening carefully and totally to everything he says and she reacts with genuine warmth. Her music and playing underscores and supports the poems and never overpowers them. She is the consummate partner/accompanist and her joy is infectious.

Three chairs are the set. Robert McQueen  re-arranges the chairs when a new location is indicated. The co-direction of Damien Atkins and Andrew Kushnir is unobtrusive—perhaps the movement of chairs can be pared down, but I leave that to further development.  

Initially the premise is that he and his two sisters, Rose and Robin, are meeting a therapist to discuss various issues, specifically with their late mother. Robert was devoted to her and as a kid loved watching her get dressed and put on her make-up. His mother seemed to like that attention.

As the ‘therapy’ session with his sisters progresses, Robert’s attention wanders to another time.  When he was an 18-year-old gay man he moved from Vancouver to New York City to study theatre. He discovered the gay culture there and was embraced and found his place. The freedom to be in that world was heady. Robert McQueen’s face glowed when recalling the memories, the life-long friends he met. I was so taken with the sparkle of the man—his eyes twinkled (no other word for it); his smile was brilliant (I irreverently wanted to know what toothpaste the man used). He went from one adventure to another. He spoke in glowing, funny terms of his many friends along the way, all spoken through his crystal, clear poems. Elegant, graceful, joyful and eventually heartbreaking.  Occasionally his attention was drawn back to the therapy session but then it wandered again to his time in New York.

And then came the scourge of AIDS. McQueen delves deeply into the valiant struggle of friends to live with the disease, the physical ravaging it caused; the emotional upheaval of a mother who rejected her dying son; the kindness of friends to get on a plane to hold the hand of a friend in hospice. McQueen’s sensitivity in dealing with these gut-punches is delicate and heart-squeezing. If one is lucky one lives to a ripe, old age and looses friends gradually. McQueen was losing friends in clumps in their and his prime of life. He bears witness to that time and gives his friends life again. We are the beneficiaries of that gift.

I hope The Real Poems has another life and that McQueen publishes his poems.   

Here for Now Theatre presents:

Plays until: Sept. 11, 2022.

Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

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