By Nick Pilgrim
Based in Melbourne and its immediate surrounds, Midsumma is an annual festival of LGBTQIA+ arts and culture. Stretching across three jam-packed weeks each January and February, it routinely attracts more than a quarter of a million people.
The event was launched in 1989 as a seven day celebration of pride. Three decades later, this successful format has grown to become one of the top five of its kind in the world, along with similar carnivals staged in New York City, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Sydney.
Midsumma’s calendar offers a wide array of activities, including dance parties, films, gallery exhibitions, spoken word forums, and sporting displays. There is also a heavy emphasis on the performing arts.
One of this year’s most-anticipated international imports, Confessions of a Mormon Boy is a heady mix of cheeky dish and searing drama. Both created and fronted by Utah-born, Steven Fales, his powerful work played for a strictly-limited and sell-out season at Chapel off Chapel’s Loft Space.
In my time reviewing for Theatre People, I have covered a solid handful of solo acts. Ranging in structure and variety, notable pieces include A Different Way Home, An Evening With Groucho, Every Brilliant Thing, Hold The Pickle, Hello Kitty Flanagan, Let Me Entertain You – The Robbie Williams Story, Oprafication, The Confident Profiler, Time Is A Traveller, and Vigil.
Whether they are cabarets, comedies, concerts, musicals or plays, these highly-different outings share a common link. Each experience hinges not only on strength of content, but how the owner’s front and unpack such specific visions. Carrying the entire journey on their shoulders, means being the star can be both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.
With the public’s hunger for more specialised entertainment, there is also a growing marketplace for material with religious theming. Some of the more dramatic examples to date are motion pictures like Boy, Erased, Latter Days, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and Ticket To Heaven. Not to mention the blockbuster musical, The Book of Mormon.
Confessions of a Mormon Boy is as much one man’s journey to self-acceptance as it is an open therapy session.
Born into a family strict of faith, came at a heavy price for the young man. Fales grew up engulfed by religion, its rituals and requirements. Above all else, the church demanded its members to put on a happy face no matter the cost. (Without giving anything away, this deception is brought to a head in the closing moments of the show. At the performance I saw, Fales’ disclosure made several audience members literally gasp with shock.)
Fales sets the play’s tone very early, taking the audience along in the palm of his hand. Blessed with matinee idol looks and the physical appeal to match, he is an expert story-teller. Meaning, Fales has that performer’s ability to be confident one minute, self-deprecating the next.
Confessions of a Mormon Boy covers vast emotional territory. When Fales realised he had an SSA, or as the Mormon Church labelled it, a ‘Same Sex Attraction’, his life was thrown into turmoil.
From detailing his two-year mission in Portugal to discovering a passion for musical theatre, Fales paints a picture of a displaced person coping in extreme circumstances. Adding to his despair, marriage and building a family were also a necessary expectation of his faith.
A people-pleaser at heart, even the church’s offer of conversion therapy made him more miserable. After several failed attempts, Fales accepted his sexuality, and was excommunicated on the spot.
It comes as no surprise that this regimented upbringing deeply impacted his adult life. If one thing separates human beings from animals, it’s our ability to make conscious choices.
Freedom in Fales’ case for want of a better word, was a double-edged sword.
Dreams of becoming a Broadway star, were sidelined by the need to survive. New York City’s prohibitive living standards, made him easy prey. Taking on work as a gay escort, he offsets this painful revelation with a hilarious comparison to Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.
Later, Fales also sank into the party scene with total abandon. Fuelled by its recreational drug use, it became a source of escape and self-annihilation. Through all of this, it was surprising to learn that his unwavering faith was one of the few things which kept False afloat.
With its simple yet precise sound and lighting design, Confessions of a Mormon Boy is delivered with a very specific demographic in mind. This is an experience which invites viewers to watch someone at their most naked and vulnerable. Peeling away the layers, it allows audiences to question their own decisions and how they impact both themselves and the people around them as well.
With a total running time of ninety minutes, Fales takes key events and episodes from his life and pulls them apart for viewer consumption. Many of his stories are highly personal and affecting. Their power lies in whether he views his life as victorious or tragic. Furthermore, Fales has a gift for injecting these tales with moments of wicked humour, as well as a pleasing narrative style.
Well worth the immersion, Confessions of a Mormon Boy is a memorable inclusion in this year’s Midsumma line-up.