Alex Radnitz and Roberto Pombo. (Pic: Jan Potgieter)

South Africans are, perhaps because of our placement on the edges of the world map, often parochial in our views of what theatre and drama festivals should be.

The THATSOGAY Festival has seized this and provided a very unusual and meaty start to this contribution to the Joburg arts scene. In 2011 UJ Arts and Culture started out with a Reading Gay Festival, out of which this present festival was born.

The festival begins with an international work, Snowman, by Canadian playwright, Greg MacArthur. Directed by Renos Spanoudes, the play is weird, but fabulous.

Most gay festivals major on pink feathers, diamantes and camp, fluffy productions. Snowman doesn’t comply. In an interview with Greg MacArthur he assured me that that the fact that there is a gay character in this play is purely incidental.

Based on a true story set in Canada’s frozen north, a young gay man, Jude (Roberto Pombo) discovers an ancient, possibly prehistoric, frozen body buried in a glacier.

The play deals with his response to this, together with how his only friends, Denver (Alex Radnitz) and Marjorie (Deidre Schoeman) respond. The fourth character is the archaeologist who is eventually summoned to deal with the situation, Kim (Ashleigh Harvey).

The characters interact spacially, but they are emotionally isolated. The narration is mostly a series of monologues verbalising thoughts which would never be expressed. The play is heavy, dealing with the isolation of deeply dysfunctional individuals, but it has lots of moments of humour, often prompted by the incongruities of the situations in which the characters find themselves.

Renos Spanoudes is an academic, performer, playwright and director. His rapier sharp mind has dissected the work and reassembled it in such a way that emphasised the universality of the themes. Importantly the humour is always comfortable, never making me guilty for laughing in that situation.

No attempt was made to use Canadian accents, much to my relief. The characters are acted by young actors, and Spanoudes has encouraged each of them into a strong individual portrayal. I particularly liked how Kim was placed in the audience until she was summoned up north by Denver. It underscored the fact that these people are just like us – or is it that we are like them?

Alex Radnitz (l) and Roberto Pombo (r). (Pic: Jan Potgieter)

The set was ‘cool and isolated’ like a glacier, but again without setting the play in any particular place and time. From time to time films were projected in the background in a way which fragmented them, adding to the sense of isolation.

The surprise of the evening was the strength of the portrayal of Marjorie by Deirdre Schoeman. Ms Schoeman never overplayed Marjorie, but created such a desperately real character that I felt I actually knew her. Roberto Pombo who created a vulnerable and defiant Jude and Ashleigh Harvey who made a sexy and ambitious Kim are already known to regular theatre attendees in Gauteng.

Alex Radnitz is less well known, and his nervousness showed when he asked where Denver (his own character) was? He meant ‘Jude” of course. The rest of the cast covered it well, but it threw Radnitz. I almost saw him banging his hand against his head for the next two or three minutes.

As I left the theatre I reflected on my own responses to life. What dead, rotting thing do I revere, returning to it time and time again? What that brings me no joy and satisfaction do I hold on to simply because I lack the energy and drive to change things? What have I suppressed so that I can cope with other day to day things? What imprisons me? How do I make sense of my own dysfunctionalities?

The THATSOGAY Festival runs from 28 August to 13 October 2012 at the Con Cowan Theatre, UJ’s Bunting Road Campus (adjacent to SABC in Auckland Park). Snowman runs to 1 September at 7.30pm.

The other plays are: Little Poof! Big Bang! written and performed by Bruce J. Little on 7 and 8 September; Dalliances by Pieter Jacobs from 9 to 13 October and Juliet Jenkin’s The Boy Who Fell from the Roof directed by Jade Bowers from 18 to 22 September. Tickets are from R25 to R60 from Computicket or 011 559 3058.

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