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PUSH Physical Theatre extinguishes the ‘Generic Male’

Sep 24, 2021

Rochester’s PUSH Physical Theatre is a remarkable fusion of dance, body architecture, sight gags, and social philosophy. Thursday night at the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival, these provocateurs took aim at the most-dangerous inhabitants of the planet.

It’s long past time to bust the balloon of the “Generic Male.”

At the core of PUSH Physical Theatre has always been the husband-and-wife team of Darren and Heather Stevenson. Over the course of its 20 years, it has also included an evolving cast of performers. Ashley Jones, who is from England, joined a few years ago. 

But “Generic Male,” at CenterStage Theatre at the JCC: Hart Theater, is essentially a two-man show: Stevenson and Jones.

Credit Matt Burkhartt / WXXI

“Generic Male” opens with Stevenson as a generic stage director, and Jones conveniently planted in the audience before being brought onstage for the next hour. Opening the first window into this exploration of “Generic Male,” Stevenson asks — perhaps correctly — isn’t Ashley a woman’s name?

Stevenson also plucks another innocent fellow from the audience. Ray, as he identified himself at Thursday’s show, was handed an introduction to read, in which he accepted responsibility for all pelvic thrusting, realistic war violence, homophobic hate preaching, and toxic masculinity to come. And Ray, as the script directed, then asked to be the target of the anticipated audience rage over such imagery, before reclaiming his seat.

“Generic Male” is loaded with comedy. A lot of suggestion can be packed into loose-fitting sweat pants. That’s your pelvic thrusting. There is an abstract argument over chairs, and a slapstick wrestling match.

PUSH Physical Theatre's Darren Stevenson portrays his son in Generic Male at JCC CenterStage Theatre on Sept. 23, 2021, as part of Rochester Fringe Festival.
Credit Matt Burkhartt / WXXI

Yet strong messages begin creeping into the loose narrative. Stevenson has visited this territory before: One of their sons is in the military. Special Operations. “A professional killer,” as Stevenson says. And that sets up a solo dance piece in which he steps into the role of his son, throwing a baseball. Growing up into a soldier, in which throwing that baseball becomes throwing a hand grenade. Swinging a bat becomes the movement of impaling an enemy with a bayonet. That is your realistic war violence, and it ends in tragedy.

Support systems are built into the “Generic Male,” and Stevenson becomes one: a couch, a chair, an animated apparatus on which he carries and slings around Jones, as the father figure Stevenson talks to him about sex.

Then, to the theme of James Bond, they embody toxic masculinity, challenging each other to remove their clothing, one item at a time, until they’re down to their underwear. They can’t go any further with this. So it’s time for Russian roulette, played with party hats and a balloon. One man huffs and puffs into the balloon, then hands it to the other. Back and forth, the tension builds, the audience knows how this will end: A balloon can only handle so much hot air.

BOOM! “Yes, take your underwear off!” shouts the winner.

And then they are transported back, as 8-year-olds, settling down in front of a giant video screen to watch a pious man standing before a room full of Christian believers. The faces of these men at the front of the room change as each new relief preacher takes the mound, but the message remains the same. This is the homophobic hate preaching that the audience was promised.

Credit Matt Burkhartt / WXXI

Yet Stevenson and Jones do not stand for it. They dance. But not a Generic Male Dance. They are shirtless, they embrace, they catch one another, drape themselves across each other. It is unapologetically homoerotic.

The Generic Male has been shattered. To a standing ovation.

PUSH and “Generic Male” return for a 7 p.m. Saturday performance at the CenterStage Theatre at the JCC: Hart Theater.

The complete festival schedule is available at rochesterfringe.com. Go to “Find a Show,” create a list of events by date, venue and genres, then hit the “Filter” button. Tickets to each event are available at the web site, by calling (585) 957-9837, or at the venue one hour before the start of the show if they are still available.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org. Feedback on this article can be directed to dkushner@rochester-citynews.com.