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.

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SummerWorks: Turnabout is fair play as women’s sex & violence fantasies take centre stage in Beautiful Man

BeautifulMan-400x320A puppet show within a play within a TV show within a movie. All very sexy. All very violent. All featuring powerful, strong women with beautiful men in the background.

Yep, you read that right. This is the multidimensional storytelling the audience experiences in Groundwater Production’s Beautiful Man, written by Erin Shields and directed by Groundwater co-Artistic Director Andrea Donaldson – now running at the Theatre Centre Mainspace as part of SummerWorks.

It all starts with three friends talking about a new cop movie featuring a female homicide detective on the hunt for a serial killer who’s preying on beautiful young men. After the cop’s nurse boyfriend gives up on their now cold anniversary dinner when she’s late getting home, she sits down to relax and watch TV: a sword and sorcery tale where women are the rulers and warriors, with men acting in the periphery as consorts or slaves. And so the nesting doll structure of storytelling begins – talking about the movie becomes a discussion about the TV show within the movie, then morphing into the play within the TV show and the puppet show within the play. Got it?

Fabulous work from the cast in this mercurial and visceral relating of each story, rife with detailed descriptions, sex and violence. Anusree Roy as the imperious and precise Sophie; Ava Markus as the playful and curious Pam; and Melissa D’Agostino as the straight-shooting, spunky Jennifer. All three women are passionate, assertive, sensual and deeply committed to these stories – so much so that they become fully immersed as they relate each gory, erotic detail. There’s a lot of penis talk. Like, a lot. And detailed too; this is a world where full frontal male nudity is commonplace, and erections (“semi” or full) aren’t just for porno any more. And most of the men seem to have sandy blond hair. Was someone thinking about Ryan Gosling? 😉

Oh, yeah, and Brett Donahue is the Beautiful Man. And he certainly is. Positioned in the background, upstage on a platform behind the three women, Donahue does a great job taking on the roles of each of the beautiful men in these stories – from the cop’s neglected boyfriend, to the queen’s consort, to a wounded soldier bound for his captor’s harem of men. You get the picture.

A reminder to never underestimate what turns women on – and that sex and violence have universal appeal. It’s very possible that the cop in that movie needs to be looking for a female serial killer. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that a bunch of unsolved real-life cases went cold because the cops weren’t looking for a female perpetrator.

With shouts to music and sound designer Richard Feren for the bang-on Game of Thrones-inspired soundtrack.

Turnabout is fair play as women, and their sex and violence fantasies, take centre stage in hilarious, insightful Beautiful Man.

Beautiful Man continues at the Theatre Centre Mainspace until Aug 16 – check here for the show’s full schedule. This is another very popular show, so advanced booking or early arrival at the box office is strongly recommended.

In the meantime, check out the teaser trailer: