Minnesotans beware, there is audience participation.
The moment you walk into SpringHouse Ministry Center, eager camp counselors descend on you like well meaning locusts, and usher you into Camp Str8-N-Arrow. They complimented my companion's purple hair, saying they were eager to “reclaim the rainbow!” and pointed us proudly toward the gender-specific restrooms. The near constant innuendos and the ratio of short to man-thigh leaves one quite dubious about their insistence on heterosexuality.
From there, we are herded into a fellowship room, complete with stained glass windows and a pulpit, and camp begins. The counselors have enough energy to power the sun, and more double entendres than a truck of Mae Wests. But, under all the pep and vigor and demonstrations of Advanced Hetero Touch, things very quickly are starting to crack.
As the title suggests, Ex-Gays: Not a Str8 Remount is a new iteration of Savage Umbrella's 2011 piece. I wasn't around for the original production, but the team makes excellent use of the new location, marking time with crayon drawings and using flashlights to create secret nighttime rendezvous. Walking into an actual church to experience this piece adds a real layer of authenticity. Even when things get ridiculous (and they do get real ridiculous), the space reminds you that this probably isn't as far from the truth as it should be.
It's a tough line to walk. Along with coloring pages and invocations for campers to “let our precious Lord's enormous grace come inside them,” the program also has a content warning and actual resources for mental health services and LGBTQ+ support groups. There's an interesting tension between lampooning how clearly ridiculous gay conversion camps are, but also acknowledging how harmful they are, and the piece sometimes struggles with that balance.
I found myself wanting to spend a little less time in camp itself and more time with all the behind the scenes drama we overhear while we color our programs or technical director Pam (a delightful Shannon McCarville) teaches us how to hook up a Roku (don't get too caught up in the plot and miss her presentation by the way, it's quite...informative).
The story kicks into gear with the arrival of Alex (Courtney Stirn), a “trans-fer” from Chicago who offers no pronouns and utterly bewilders the counselors. I took so much joy in watching Alex break the binary simply by existing, but I was also a bit disappointed when Alex was an intern instead of a camper.
See, up until this point, the audience had been playing the campers, and I don't think we knew what our role was. Are we supposed to nod along to “Our God is a Hetero God”? Are we supposed to put ourselves in the shoes of a confused kid who genuinely thinks they want to change? What does my queer body mean in this space? Should we play along or are we allowed to rebel?
This may have been compounded by the small size of the Thursday night audience, which made it harder to hide. But, I wanted to hear more of the camper's side of the story. We get some of this with former campers Ricky and Sam (Matthew Englund and Meagan Kedrowski) and they were the beating hearts of the piece. There was such an aching sweetness and vulnerability to them, and the scenes I spent with them were some of my favorite parts of the show.
My other favorite part of the show was the nonstop barrage of sticky innuendo right in your face. The naughtiness is very contagious and made it hard to write this long review.
Savage Umbrella is duly proud of the fact that all the queer characters are played by queer performers, and seeing them take such satisfaction in being campy and filthy and over the top is truly joyful. Whether they are helping the audience relax their perinea, performing a ribbon dance extravaganza, or graphically frosting a cake, the Savage Umbrella ensemble is defiantly enjoying themselves. And that's important. Especially when this piece reminds us that one of most subversive things someone can tell you is that you're worthy just as you are.