Edited by Maria Crawford, photos by Raymond Helkio.
Sky Gilbert’s latest theatre offering is the delicious Greg’s Cookies. While the the play’s program states there is no connection to Toronto’s “Craig’s Cookies”, the similarities are striking. David Benjamin Tomlinson, who was the star of one of my favourite Sky Gilbert plays, Tollar, performs the part of Greg, the celebrated God of cookie creations.
Before Greg makes his first appearance, we are introduced to Velma and Virginie, conjoined twins who are joined at the hip and share a leg, a pair of wide pants and a kidney. Ironically these two uber-talented actors are sisters in real life. Velma, played by Toronto legend Kirsten Johnson, is wide-eyed and slightly over-sexed while Sigrid Johnson, who plays Virginie, is by contrast the smarter of the two and often very critical of her other half. With the audience seated around a small space at the Epochal Imp on the Danforth, the twins hobble around the room chatting with each other about current events, sex, men and cats. As we learn more about the twins, it becomes apparent that Velma is obsessed with wanting to learn more about non-binary people and also reveals she is in love Greg who is gay, making him a forbidden object of affection.
Once out front of Greg’s Cookies, the pair encounter a homeless man, played by Bruno Simoes whose first words are perhaps the best line in the play, “You’re molesting the angels!” According to Sky, this line was from an actual encounter he had with a homeless man. The homeless man provides a stark contrast to the somewhat privileged twins whose interactions with him highlight their disconnection from the reality of who Church Street is made up of. Taking aim at the ever-changing Church Street, what once was a haven for butch dykes, femme fags and trans people, has evolved into a destination for tourists, bridal showers, condo dwellers, and the under-housed. Sure the queer is still there, but not in the way it was previously in the seventies and early eighties when it was one of the few safe places for queers to connect with other like-minded queers. The scene ends with a raunchy and wonderful moment where the homeless man realizes he urgently has to take a shit and does so on stage. A gross thought perhaps, but just like “You’re molesting the angels!”, Sky took this scene from reality, another moment in time that happened in front of Sky’s eyes and then became incorporated into this work.
The twins show themselves as utterly disconnected from the realties of those who are under-housed who find themselves struggling with mental health, addiction and extreme poverty.
In part, this Greg’s Cookies is an exploration between the under-housed and the gentrified, emphasized through the dynamic between Velma and Virginie, who make judgments about how the homeless man might spend the five dollars they consider giving him, but ultimately do not. Their suggestion that he just needs to apply himself and get a job echoes the realities of those who pass by the under-housed on Church Street, willfully ignoring their desperation and cries for help. This scenario is commonplace in The Village, and the city at large – a strategy for those who have enough wealth to be able to afford Toronto rents with enough left over to purchase a four dollar cookie.
As the twins shout out unsolicited, seemingly concrete, but grossly misdirected, suggestions for how the homeless man can solve his greatest problem if he would only just apply himself and “just get a job”. This type of mindless offering is more often than not an attempt to distance oneself from the homeless crisis by offering up a magical remedy that in reality is not at all realistic or achievable. In many ways this is what modern day Church Street has devolved into, a gross disconnection between our fellow humans and an unwillingness to practice empathy in place of scorn.
On the surface, Greg’s Cookies comes off as a light and airy walk in the park, yet it is more as a reflection of the changing demographics of The Village, and perhaps most notably, the play hints at a possible future for the current gender wars that exist within some social spheres. While Virginie attempts to unpack and explain the term “non-binary”, Velma’s obsession with what this all means grows.
When we are finally introduced to Greg, he appears as an angelic God, one that could do no wrong and is infatuated with his own greatness. Tomlinson plays this role like a magician, a perfect hybrid of inner beauty mixed with a healthy dose of narcissism. When asked, “Where and when did you find love?”, Sir Greg answers with “My cookies are the origins of love”. Those cookies provide the perfect bitter-sweet metaphor for Velma’s misplaced love, a love made from the sweetness of sugar and the bitterness of salt.
While Virginie continues to expand on what the term non-binary means, Velma ponders her love for Greg, echoing a common “Will & Grace” stereotype that was once as popular as the show itself. This dynamic, a gross generalization of gay males and how they should relate to their straight female besties, may create a safe space for woman but perpetuates the limp-waisted, sharp-tongued homosexual whose life is reduced to a campy performance, one that separates the gay man from his true emotions. And this separation positions gay male sexuality as something to be feared, a fear that extends from a type of internalized homophobia that grows from the imaginations of straight people regarding what it is gay men do to one another in the bedroom.
Early on, Greg suggests that the two refer to him as “Sir Greg”, a term that elevates his status, ensuring he remains untouchable. This elite status is remarkably similar to that of the “haves” and “have nots”. Faced with the reality of who Greg really is; a queer, a baker, a successful entrepreneur and a God-like figure, Sir Greg confronts Velma on her obsession with non-binary people.
The interaction hints at an ideology surrounding new gender definitions as a type of fad, however I disagree with this suggestion. Non-binary is thought by some to be another option, a third place that the “other” can inhabit as if it’s a new social invention. Prior to colonialism in North America, we had up to six different gender variants, beyond the binary of male and female, that existed in over one hundred and fifty-five Indigenous nations. The entire concept of what society deems male and female behaviours are largely social constructions that bare little resemblance to reality and so this resurgence of non-binary, trans and gender non-conforming terms is not a new set of offerings but a social and political movement which allows people to reclaim their identities while refusing to be shoved into predetermined boxes defined by sexuality and gender roles. It’s a way for queer people to disassociate from the patriarchy by circumventing the man-made colonialist notions of what it means to be a human.
Sky may be correct that non-binary as a term will likely not take over as a complete category but it holds the potential of coming at gender from a whole new starting point, ultimately creating an entirely new way from which to view our bodies.
I’m glad my friend Maria asked this important question of Sky. Extrapolating the exact meanings that a playwright intends to impart through their work, may not always be a clear and straight-forward task, but perhaps that’s the intention. To create a space where these ideologies can be held out into the light, examined, taken apart, and refashioned through open dialogue and free thought. While Greg’s Cookies brings to life a number of societal issues, serving as a critique of how the The Village has changed, and it is also widely funny and beautifully acted. And ironically tickets are about the same price as a six-pack of Greg’s cookies.
“Greg’s Cookies” delves into themes of identity, gender, and societal change, all wrapped up in a comedic package utilizing humour to explore the complexities of gender identity and the struggles that come with it. Velma’s character represents a generation that is still grappling with the idea of non-binary individuals and the terminology surrounding it. While her confusion and misunderstandings provide a comedic element to the play, it also serves as a commentary on the need for greater understanding and acceptance of, and for, gender diversity.