So-called “conversion therapy” (aka “reparative therapy”) assumes that homosexuality is shameful and an abomination. In the US alone, according to a recent Williams Institute report, nearly 700,000 LGBTQ adults have been subjected to conversion therapy meant to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Despite clear evidence that such treatment is bogus and harmful, causing anxiety, drug use, and suicide, it persists. Some 57,000 Americans still in their youth today will receive conversion therapy before they reach the age of 18.
“Bundle of Sticks,” a provocative, farcical drama by J. Julian Christopher, attempts to tackle this fraught topic. But instead of a straightforward narrative, he injects a heavy dose of magical realism. Under the direction of Lou Moreno, and with an assist from Harbour Edney’s inventive lighting design, the piece pulses with undeniable theatricality. The work is a joint production from INTAR Theatre and Radio Drama Network.
Instead of a single play, Christopher instead gives us three stories cobbled together. One chronicles the travails of a group of gay men sent to The Sticks, a global conversion therapy center in Coober Pedy, an Australian town that served as the setting for the “Mad Max” film.
The founder and leader, Otto Nairn, is a toxic taskmaster who spews anti-gay rhetoric while at the same time reveling in the glories of penises and man-musk. He regularly performs “erection checks” without consent. As part of a tolerance exercise, he forces the young men to strip naked and sniff each other’s genitals. Otto, for his part, has no problem strutting his junk as well.
“Too often I see blokes give in to this bizarre and maladjusted homosexual life that the world is forcing down our throats,” he says lasciviously. “We are expected not to gag on the gay agenda. It’s time for the rest of us to live in our birthday suit and show these amoral blokes that we have no gag reflex.”
Now, you may be wondering how such an intimate, graphic scene might be staged. Christopher has solved the dilemma by casting the roles without cisgender males, which adds another surreal dimension and challenges traditional constructs of gender identity. Actors wear cartoonish prosthetic genitals made of fabric, their size somewhat exaggerated in keeping with the play’s otherworldly conceit. While there is no actual nudity, an intimacy coach, Chelsea Pace, was wisely brought in to supervise the sexual scenes.
The loathsome, oily Otto is skillfully embodied by Laura Jordan, employing a lilting yet menacing Australian Outback accent. The multinational inmates include Francisco (Melissa Navia), a Dominican who wants to become straight, Abram (Fleece), an obstinate Russian Jew, Gregos (Lucille Duncan), a macho young Greek, Gemi (Zo Tipp), a feisty, snarky Indonesian, and Tyree (Hope Ward), an African-American army veteran in love with Gemi.
Another play involves a mythical beast known as the Rainbow Serpent, god of rain and erections, who appears to invade the men’s dreams. This multicolored phallic snake arrives in puppet form and sometimes is comprised of the men themselves arranged in a line, wriggling in a rhythmic, slithery dance.
Yet another play recounts Otto’s grandfather, Walter Nairn, a conservative nationalist who inspired Otto to establish The Sticks program. Walter, the production makes clear, is a real person, while Otto and The Sticks are purely fictional. A labored connection is made between the atrocities committed by Otto and the sins of his grandfather. This third story overcomplicates the already knotty proceedings and could easily be excised.
Of course, “Bundle of Sticks” refers not only to the conversion center, but to the pejorative, “faggots,” often hurled at gay men. Despite its mystifying complexity, this bold, fascinating drama potently exposes the atrocities of conversion therapy, the duplicity of its perpetrators, and the trauma it still causes countless innocent LGBTQ people across the globe.
BUNDLE OF STICKS | INTAR Theatre, 500 W. 52nd St., fourth fl. | Through Mar. 22: Tue.- Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 5 p.m. | $40 at IntarTheatre.org | Two hrs., with intermission