By Dave Deveau. Directed by Cameron Mackenzie. A Zee Zee Theatre production. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Wednesday, February 20. Continues until March 2
Actors are sacrificial lambs. If you want to know what I mean, check out Anton Lipovetsky’s solo performance in Dave Deveau’s My Funny Valentine. The performance isn’t perfect, and neither is the evening, but both are so skilled and heartfelt that they deserve your attention.
In My Funny Valentine, playwright Deveau explores the issues and emotions evoked by the 2008 murder of Lawrence King, a 15-year-old high-school kid in Oxnard, California, who asked a schoolmate, Brandon McInerney, to be his Valentine. McInerney shot King twice in the head in the school computer lab. King died on Valentine’s Day.
Deveau’s approach is associative. Rather than showing us the characters we might expect to see, he turns his gaze to the periphery—to the victim’s English teacher, Helen, for instance, and to the homophobic dad of another male student.
The writing is frothily, often bitchily, funny. A little girl who will receive the dead boy’s liver has gay dads and resents it when women “give me a look like they want to nurse me”. Pubescent Gloria yearns to leave Oxnard, which claims fame for being the former home of film director James Cameron: “I don’t care how much money he spent on that Avatar movie. It still looks like a shiny cartoon.”
And Deveau’s meditation is complex. Helen, who has loved her gay student since he came out to her at 10, seeks justice—and, for her, justice involves supporting trying his killer as an adult. Her compassion takes sides. The homophobic father points out that the murdered gay student was sexually aggressive in ways that wouldn’t have been tolerated if he had been a straight boy objectifying girls.
For all of its thematic complexity, though, the script has little narrative drive, and sometimes—notably in the passage delivered by a male teacher—it starts to feel long. And despite the point that the homophobe makes about objectification, the character is mostly a cliché. The guy is working-class, unemployed, and, by his own admission, none too bright.
Lipovetsky’s performance rides a fine, sometimes contradictory line. Often, he bares his soul completely, as I’ve said. At other times, his acting is performative—still heartfelt, but broad. I’m thinking of Gloria, for instance, the would-be Oxnard escapee. With her, Lipovetsky leans so hard into the comedy, emphasizing her flamboyance and giving her such an exaggerated, valley-girl delivery, that she becomes much more of a theatrical creation than a credible, flesh-and-blood person.
With Helen, the actor manages to bridge both worlds. He plays the teacher’s giddy clumsiness for all it's worth, but he also unerringly hits the depths. When Helen said of her lost student, “He haunts me,” Lipovetsky’s delivery was so true on opening night that I had to swallow sobs.