REVIEW: Who’s converting who in The Conversion?

The Conversion Nathan Cuckow GigCity EdmontonThe Conversion is a powerful new play from Edmonton’s small but feisty theatre troupe, “Kill Your Television.”

The company has only produced about one play a year in its 15 years, but has won an astonishing number of Sterling Awards (seven so far). Past successes have included Eric Bogosian’s SubUrbia and the gothic Fringe hit, Victor and Victoria’s Terrifying Tale of Terrible Things.

The company specializes in small, gritty, socially-conscious plays and The Conversion, which opened its world premiere Thursday at the PCL Studio Theatre, certainly fits into that mold.

Apparently it began in a conversation between Kill Your Television actor-writer Nathan Cuckow and a gay Mormon whose parents tried to convert him to “normalcy” by electroshock therapy. Cuckow is a gay ex-Mormon himself, star of the much travelled show, Bash’D – a Gay Rap Opera and a co-writer of the powerful Fringe hit 3…2…1. Unable to forget the story, Cuckow enlisted the help of director Kevin Sutley, and over a number of years the two developed The Conversion.

The play is set in modern-day Edmonton. Two vigilantes, dressed in coveralls, burst into a room of plastic sheets over rough planks. They begin the methodical preparation of the room for what is obviously to be a torture session. Their victim is Mr. Burton (Cuckow) a successful businessman, a fundamentalist Christian with a traditional family. David (Jason Chinn) is a bit of a nerd, a motormouth movie fan who appears to have been shaped by the cinema – he’s fascinated by Christopher Nolan’s time shifting film Memento. Mr. Smith (Chris W. Cook) is a pragmatic Afghanistan vet who just might be suffering from PTSD. The two skirt around some philosophical observations of fear and violence and science and religion as they set about torturing Mr. Burton.

The idea is to get him to admit he’s a homosexual – even if his life and religion proclaim the opposite.

The Conversion Nathan Cuckow GigCity EdmontonSomewhat prosaically, the first act ends. But Cuckow and Sutley have just set us up for the sharp instrument of exploration that is Act II.

Mr. Burton and his conversion is not what this is about after all. Each of the characters delivers a monologue and each of these superb actors, in a wrenching few moments, make us understand the complex emotions that have drawn them to this charnel room. The words are blunt, poetic and profound as long hidden wounds are lanced and exposed. Fundamental Christianity. Forgiveness. Revenge. God and man. And yes, homophobia, bigotry and the continuing demand that the many must follow the beliefs of the few are all acutely examined.

Throughout Cuckow and Sutley resist the stereotypical. Like the master theatrical magicians they are, they may lead you down the pathway to simple conclusions but with the aid of superlative acting, seamless direction and probing dialogue you find yourself in some very unexpected places.

The Conversion is part of the Art at the Barns Presentation Series and runs until May 28 in the PCL Studio.

Photos by Lucas Boutilier