Headstrong Collective opened its Double Bill of one-person plays – Licking Knives and Man to Man – at Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace this week. Using minimalist sets and eye-catching, at times startling, images projected on the upstage wall, these two well-matched plays are portraits of women forced into life-changing, life and death circumstances during WWII where each must live like a chameleon in order to survive.
“Ukrainian people are convinced that everything will turn out shit because it always has. And they are always right.” – Licking Knives
Licking Knives – written and performed by Melanie Hrymak. Amidst the metropolitan hustle and bustle of post-war Paris (the tone set with projected images of Paris and the sounds of the city), a well-dressed, elegant woman silently enters, finds a table on a café patio, and removes her hat, gloves and coat. And tells us her story. Gradually, her accent changes as she takes us into the past. Once upon a time, she was a Ukrainian farm girl, one of six children who worked hard to help the family plant its annual wheat crop – wheat that was now being commandeered by the army. A small misfit in the family, she dreamed of going elsewhere, but never could have expected what would happen next. Torn from her home to work in a Nazi labour camp, she goes from housemaid to tunnel worker, the tunnel ultimately saving her when the Allies take the camp. Her old life gone, she travels to Paris with her newfound freedom, where her life becomes fluid and changeable. Ukrainian, Polish, German, French. Becoming someone else. Changing herself to forget.
Hrymak’s performance is frank, dark and wryly funny. In this woman’s shoes, she pulls no punches about the details of the experience and what she must do to survive; the tone is hard and vulnerable at the same time, refined and coarse, carefree and pensive. In the end, this woman has most effectively erased the girl she once was – but it’s clear that that Ukrainian farm girl still lives underneath.
“I, my own widow, my late lamented husband, had to be man enough to wear the fucking trousers.” – Man to Man
Man to Man – written by Manfred Karge, translated by Anthony Vivis, and directed by Kelli Fox, assisted by Leslie McBay, and performed by Lisa Karen Cox. Set in Germany during the Nazi’s rise to power, when her husband’s poor health and subsequent death threaten her very survival, Ella Gericke becomes her dead husband Max and takes over his job as a crane operator. But her new identity eventually becomes problematic as the Nazis want soldiers to grow their army – and Ella/Max must come up with a new plan to stay alive. The language is both romantic and profane as the storytelling shifts back and forth between fanciful fairytale and harsh reality.
Cox gives a strong, grounded performance; and she does a remarkable job of shifting between characters, playing multiple roles – male and female, and female to male – coquettish, demure, bawdy, aggressive. As Ella morphing into Max, Cox is ballsy and go-to. She relishes her successful transformation in learning and executing Max’s job, then dreads interactions with co-workers, who want to drink, gamble and womanize after hours – afraid of being found out, but enjoying this new experience of the world. Switching back and forth between masculine and feminine versions of herself, Ella intends on becoming a woman again, but the timing never seems right and she always finds herself returning to her Max persona. In becoming her own prince come to save her, she will never be the same person again.
Along with the shape-shifting survival qualities of the women in these two plays, like Edith Piaf in her famous rendition of “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” these women regret nothing.
With shouts to the design team: Karyn McCallum (set and projection for both plays, and also costume for Man to Man), Rebecca Picherack (lighting), Tessa Springate (sound for Licking Knives), and Matthew Lawrence and Tom Perry (sound for Man to Man).
Two women’s memoirs of wartime resilience and survival in powerful, poetic Headstrong Collective Double Bill of Licking Knives and Man to Man.
Headstong Collective’s Double Bill of Licking Knives and Man to Man continues at the TPM Backspace until Dec 20. Check here for dates/times and advance tickets; you can also reserve by phone at 416-504-7529 or get tickets in person at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Ave).