You know the scene. An elegant crooner regales us with anecdotes, their songs seeming to echo the heartache and joy of a life well lived. A stalwart piano player is there, of course, as both accompaniment and casual therapist. Presented by Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and developed in their Residency Program, Martin Julien’s The Man That Got Away (A Special Appearance), has a very familiar form. This is fanciful autobiography—blending verbatim text, confessional asides and musical numbers in an exploration of a unique family history and the Toronto queer culture that shaped it.
Though it has many of the trademarks of a cabaret, it shakes up the form quite a bit. Most notably, there are ghosts! His father Leo—a gay man who died of AIDS at Casey House hospice—manifests through Ben Page at the piano. Wandering in and out at as a wayward, spectral presence, Tat Austrie embodies the legendary Judy Garland.
A queer icon, Garland’s legacy is tied to his own. Just as he was coming into the world, his father—obsessed with the troubled diva—purchased a ticket to go see her 1961 Montreal concert at a time when attention and money should have been focused on his new family. And yet we don’t judge him too harshly because Julien doesn’t; he makes room for our human capacity for indulgence and even frames it as somehow vital.
In her performance, Austrie’s doesn’t try to recreate Garland’s voice or demeanour; it isn’t the trappings of that persona that are important, but her position in his memories. Her body and voice a grounding presence, she both encourages and challenges Julien in his quest to unpack his family’s history.
Julien’s life experience is the foreground, serving almost as a frame for the tale of his parents—a lesbian mother and a gay father, coming out to each other and the world. Though technically straight, Julien’s life experience and sensibilities are undeniably queer. Stonewall in the late 1969, the Toronto bath house raids of 1981—these are shared cultural history, but they are personal landmarks for him as well.
Some beautifully iconic spotlights catch the mist swirling in the air—nostalgic and romantic, suggesting the billowing smoke from a lounge-singer’s cigarette. Bonnie Beecher’s choice to surround Julien in a tunnel of light, though unconventional, feels purposeful and appropriate. The sides and top of the stage are lined with rows of lamps—a very industrial, rock-concert aesthetic that compliments the classic cabaret vibe through deliberate contrast.
On the back wall of the stage, HAUI’s video projections give us title cards, photos and home movies to support Julien’s storytelling. A particularly intriguing image that appears frequently is a set of perpendicular lines that traverse the screen. These resonate strongly with the narrative motif of lifelines, and more expansively: generational through lines.
As Julien tells us about the 1950s world his parents were born into, the turbulent 1960s and 70s they matured into (raising him), and the AIDS crisis of the 80s; we see the connective tissue of lives traversing through a changing social climate. His grandparent’s also figure into the story, so we are given a glimpse as far back as the 1920s. All of these lives relate quite directly to his, intimately so; even his own child’s life feels like an immediate extension of this legacy.
Julien’s steady, calm voice invites us to share these insights that conjure history as a tangible, evolving, visceral phenomenon.
There are poignant moments with each of his parents. When his father was quite ill, he recalls trimming his beard and blurting out an “I love you” which was quickly, naturally reciprocated. We hear several interviews he conducted with his mother before she died. While the audio plays, he lip-synchs to her voice. It is, at first, eerie and disconcerting, but it gradually starts to evoke his love. We can’t help but be aware of how intimately he knows these recordings—the rhythm of his mother’s voice, her breath as it catches on some memory—allowing him to make the effect as seamless as it is. It brings both him and us closer to her.
His outfit—a warm, grey and beige suit, a salmon-coloured handkerchief tucked into a pocket—looks elegant and comfortable. Designer Sean Mulcahy has crafted a nuanced androgyny in here—a hint of Quentin Crisp that, in itself, I found subtly, surprisingly moving.
Julien opens with a letter he wrote about this project to a long-time collaborator, a man he met four decades earlier in theatre school: Peter Hinton-Davis. The knowledge that their creative association is so firmly established adds a layer of seasoned affection to this already endearing production. And Davis’s direction seems to acknowledge an intimate familiarity with Julien’s whole deal.
The Man That Got Away feels very fluid and casual, but its structure is deliberate. Julien’s twelve playwright’s notes in the show program reveal his purpose and process and are worth a read beforehand; it’ll help to focus your mind on the most salient points. It sounds like school, but sometimes entertainments should demand more of us than a mere present body.