Gender power dynamics get a table flip in the provocative, timely Beautiful Man

Foreground: Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen & Sofía Rodríguez. Background: Jess LaVercombe. Set design by Gillian Gallow. Costume design by Ming Wong. Lighting design by Jason Hand. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

 

Factory Theatre closes its 2018-19 season with Erin Shields’ Beautiful Man. Directed by long-time Shields collaborator Andrea Donaldson (now the new AD at Nightwood Theatre), assisted by Keshia Palm, Beautiful Man was first produced during SummerWorks in 2015—a few years before the #MeToo movement exploded into public consciousness. A hilariously sharp, satirical and thought-provoking turnabout of gender power dynamics, Shields has revised the original script to reflect the #MeToo landscape; and has added a section that provides a sense of everyday realism—in both cases, flipping gender power roles in surprising, provocative ways.

I first saw Beautiful Man at SummerWorks 2015—and loved it. Not for the feint-hearted when it comes to adult language, and discussions of graphic sex and violence, the razor-sharp, bawdy, no holds barred script and the playful, rapid fire performances turn the tables on who is marginalized and objectified. Three women—Jennifer (Ashley Botting), Sophie (Mayko Nguyen) and Pam (Sofía Rodríguez)—get into a passionate discussion about popular scripted media; all stories in which the female characters hold the power, and men are subject to objectification and violence. A movie about a world-weary, tough yet haunted female homicide detective on the hunt for a female serial killer who preys on beautiful men. Exhausted and zoning out in front of the TV, the detective watches a violent, graphically sexual Game of Thrones-esque fantasy fiction series featuring a powerful, cruel queen and her amazon warrior sister. Within the TV show, the queen watches a play with a plot that’s similar to Julius Caesar, but with women in the key roles; and within that play, a puppet show starring a lusty cave woman. Yep, it’s a puppet show within a play, within a TV series, within a movie—all within a play!

Throughout this first fantasy section of the play, the Beautiful Man (Jesse LaVercombe) is a peripheral character, always present in the background, with little to say as he gradually removes his clothing throughout. A sensitive, supportive but frustrated husband; a poignant murder/rape victim; a conquered sex slave. Valued only for his beauty and usefulness to the women in charge, his name is perpetually forgotten. In the epilogue, the shifted power dynamic continues, but in a markedly different way, as a woman relates personal anecdotes of navigating everyday corporate oppression, mansplaining, harassment, self-doubt and chastisement, and fear for her safety.

Outstanding performances from the entire cast in this thought-provoking, timely piece of theatre. Beyond mere fan girl involvement with the media they’re consuming and discussing, the three women engage on a deeply personal level with the movie, TV series, play and puppet show. Botting’s Jennifer displays wry wit and shameless enthusiasm; Nguyen’s Sophie brings an edge of precision and authority; and Rodríguez’s Pam relishes the sensual and forbidden. At times misremembering details in their reverie, these three  women find a titillating oasis in these stories of sex, violence and dominant female characters. And LaVercombe gives a sensitive and moving performance as the Beautiful Man. Viewed as eye candy, the “other half”, a sex object, a victim, and only subjectively and conditionally seen as useful—this is a man standing in places traditionally endured by women.

Despite the graphic sex and violence described during the first part of the play, not to mention the fact that these women are really getting off on it, the second part is perhaps the most provocative. What impact does it have on the conversations about these issues? Will the everyday oppression of women be better understood when told in this manner? Who gets the last word?

Beautiful Man continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until May 26; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416- 504-9971.

Check out this Intermission Spotlight piece on Shields and her work by Carly Maga, including chats with Shields, Donaldson and Maev Beaty. And Megan Robinson’s conversation with Shields and Donaldson in In the Greenroom.

Toronto Fringe: Privacy and identity in the digital age in sharply funny, edgy Cam Baby

cambaby.groupfunny.beaudixonbrandoncoffeychristinehorneashleybottingandrewcameronkarlang - cam babyJessica Moss and Theatre Mischief get into the guilty pleasures and discomfiting side of social media consumption and interaction in Moss’s new play Cam Baby, running now on the Factory Theatre Mainspace for Toronto Fringe. Directed by Charlotte Gowdy, assisted by Taylor Trowbridge, Cam Baby is the 2016 Toronto Fringe New Play Contest winner.

Joseph (Andrew Cameron) and Matabang (Karl Ang) are bros and business partners, running an Airbnb business with a little something extra on the side called Cam Baby, where the guests become the show. Joseph’s conscience gets the better of him when his crush Natalie (Christine Horne) moves in after breaking up with her boyfriend. Meanwhile, guest Clara (Ashley Botting), in town for three months while taking a course, is navigating a burgeoning romance with Tim (Brandon Coffey). Things all go to hell when new guest Ezra (Beau Dixon) outs the Cam Baby operation. Schadenfreude, voyeurism, commodifying other people’s lives – for money or social currency – and issues of identity on and off screen all play prominently, as does the meaning of connection in an age when our devices become an extension of ourselves.

The sharp social commentary, which shifts between hilarious and discomfiting, is delivered with lightning speed by an outstanding cast. Ang is a manic, despicable sleazebag as Matabang; a slick fast talker with an amoral sensibility – as Tim mentions at one point, he is Red Bull personified. Cameron does a great job with Joseph’s inner conflict; the good guy to Matabang’s bad guy, his hands are just as dirty. He wants to come clean, but does he have the balls to walk the talk? Botting does an awesome job with Clara’s see-sawing between self-possession and low self-esteem; articulate and smart, she’s basically a good person, but even she crosses the line at times. Horne is delightfully quirky as the conflicted, self-absorbed Natalie; the “beautiful one” of the female guests, she is happy to consume and use the lives of others, but does little with her own life. Coffey is adorkable as the sweet, sensitive Tim; he is the most genuine of the bunch, but even he’s not entirely innocent, as he gleefully watches videos of people taking a bad tumble. And Dixon brings a lovely, child-like innocence as the lonely, socially awkward Ezra; he’s a troubled guy, but is he dangerous?

In the end, we’re all culpable; judging by appearances and gossiping about others online and in person to gain attention and social standing. And maybe if we stopped being such lookie loos and turned our gaze inward more often, we’d see that we’re all so much more than the sum of our likes and followers, and more than our body shape, job title or hotness rating. Maybe we might get a better idea of who we really are – and who our friends really are.

With shouts to set/costume designer Brandon Kleiman for the trippy, modular set – the apartment spaces delineated in part by a structure of boxes painted with a QR code design, which carries over into the chairs.

Who are we when others are watching? When nobody’s watching? Do we even know? Privacy and identity in the digital age in sharply funny, edgy Cam Baby.

Cam Baby continues at the Factory Theatre Mainspace until July 10; definitely book ahead for this one, folks. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.