By Dave Deveau. Directed by Cameron Mackenzie. At the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Thursday, February 8. Continues until February 18
Ten years ago, nearly to the day, 15-year-old Larry King was shot twice in the back if the head by his classmate Brandon McInerney, whom King had asked to be his Valentine. Kept on life support for two days, he died on Valentine’s Day 2008.
That tragedy and the surrounding court case are the inspiration for Vancouver-based playwright Dave Deveau’s My Funny Valentine, which has been remounted in a new, touring production by Zee Zee Theatre for the company’s 10th anniversary.
But it’s the death of another young gay man, the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, that’s at the root of My Funny Valentine. More specifically, it’s Moisés Kaufman and Tectonic Theater Project’s The Laramie Project, a documentary-style play from 2000 based on hundreds of interviews with inhabitants of the titular college town where Shepard was murdered.
Like Laramie, Valentine is performed in a series of monologues by people peripherally affected by the King shooting: a local teen who longs to escape her small-town California life for New York City and celebrity, an enraged father whose son was sexually harassed by the murdered boy in the school locker room, a journalist who owes his career to the tragedy, an older gay man who can’t fathom the dead boy’s open sexuality, a teacher who seems to imply with a shrug that the boy got what he deserved, and a precocious little girl who receives a liver transplant from the victim. Our lodestar is an effervescent do-gooder English teacher (and the only character to recur) who, over the course of the intervening years, is beaten down by the incident and the seemingly never-ending stream of school shootings.
In a marathon performance, Conor Wylie ably inhabits each character over the course of 85 minutes, pausing only for breath or the occasional, rehearsed sip of water. Dressed in neutral jogging pants and an open button-down over a T-shirt, he uses a totemlike prop such as a notebook or a candy bar to channel each character, alternating between high camp and quiet earnestness, rage and helplessness. It’s an impressive display that’s spurred on by the playwright’s finesse with character-building.
Although more in evidence in the comedic sections, Deveau is an adept of the little details. Teenage Gloria hides her baby-sitting money in a Doritos bag where her parents would never find it; the young transplant recipient engages in a delightfully loopy mental calculus with her gay dads “Dad One” and “Dad Two”; and a father convincingly recalls his daughter Georgia’s all-too-convenient love of peaches, and a subsequent family vacation to the Peach State.
It’s also to Deveau’s credit that Valentine doesn’t devolve into preachiness, nor does it seek to lionize the unseen victim at its centre. Valentine knows that King’s shooting wasn’t a simply a senseless, isolated, black-and-white incident. It’s one which, thanks to political polarization and cable news, eventually became a complex series of events with more than enough blame to go around and nowhere to place it. And maybe that, alongside a dead teenager and one who will spend 21 years in adult prison, is the real tragedy.