SummerWorks: Pick-up artistry meets consent culture in the hilarious, disturbing, eye-opening Safe and Sorry

Lauren Gillis. Photo by Peter Demas.

 

Lester Trips Theatre presents a provocative multimedia workshop production of the hilarious, disturbing, eye-opening Safe and Sorry. Co-created and performed by Lauren Gillis and Alaine Hutton, co-performed and choreographed by Angela Blumberg, and directed by Chelsea Dab Hilke, we’re invited into the world of Keith Much, who leads workshops aimed at helping men with their dating and pick-up game. His process, a combination of pick-up artistry and consent culture, amasses a lot of fans; it also finds detractors—and Keith begins to see the darker side of male desire as he reads the comments on his message board. Safe and Sorry had its second performance in the Franco Boni Theatre at The Theatre Centre last night.

The audience becomes part of a Keith Much (Lauren Gillis) dating workshop, where our affable facilitator mixes up quick lecture bites with Q&A and one-on-one sessions on stage with a variety of participants (Alaine Hutton)—from overly enthusiastic bro’s like Mike to painfully shy dudes like Stu. His unorthodox methods make for hilarious, but instructive moments, as he teaches men about respectful approaches, consent, body language, verbal and non-verbal cues, personal hygiene and kissing.

Keith’s helpful and progressive teachings aim to make sure that both the man and woman are having good, safe, sexy fun times; but as his popularity grows and his message board gets more traffic, so too do the darker responses from the toxic masculinity side of the straight male spectrum. And he comes face to face with the dark side when an aggressive, frustrated participant disrupts a workshop Q&A, forcing him to call a break have a sit-down with the guy. This man wants to find a wife, settle down and have a family, but finds women only want to party and will dump a good guy like him for the next best thing. Angered and entitled, he believed that his excellent socioeconomic status would make a difference, but it isn’t; and he eventually identifies as incel. The toxic responses online begin to turn on Keith, as some of these men begin to question his credibility.

In between workshop scenes, we see a trailer for a movie (film design by Peter Demas, with lighting and video design by Wesley McKenzie, nicely supported by Steven Conway’s music arrangement/performance) in which four men (played by Gillis and Hutton), unknown to each other, have been abducted and chained up in a concrete bunker. As they try to figure out why they’ve been taken, they realize what they each have in common: they’ve all committed rape—and the psychological thriller scenario implies that a woman (or group of women) is out for revenge. And while the men in the trailer are forced to confront what they’ve done, women are placed in the position of being a threat, the enemy—this becomes a parallel of sorts to the dark side views that Keith sees emerging in his message board comments.

Excellent work from Gillis and Hutton in this multimedia, multi-layered trip into the male psyche from a consent culture perspective. Gillis is amiable, warm and confident as Keith; knowledgeable, professional and helpful, Keith creates a safe, supportive environment for men to share their issues, work out problems and improve their dating game. Hutton’s multi-tasking role as the various workshop participants ranges from the hilarious and goofy, to the extremely awkward and shy, to the everyday, to the angry, entitled and menacing. The movie trailer adds an interesting level to this exploration of male desire and toxic masculinity, but it’s the interaction between Keith and the men, especially the incel guy, that makes for the most powerful and compelling moments. Looking forward to seeing the evolution of this timely, thought-provoking piece; part two of Safe and Sorry is coming Spring 2020.

Safe & Sorry has one more performance in the Franco Boni Theatre at the Theatre Centre: August 16 at 5:00 p.m. Tickets available online or in person at the box office; it’s a very short three-show run, so advance booking or early arrival at the venue is recommended.

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Toronto Fringe: Into the mouth of the sea lion with the absurd surreal sketch comedy of Swallowed Whole

Carly Telford, Chris O’Bray & Raechel Fisher. Photo by Laura-Kate Dymond.

 

Irrelephant Productions takes us into the mouth of the sea lion for 55 minutes of absurd sketch comedy, peppered with drag performance and social satire in the wacky, surreal Swallowed Whole, written and directed by Rachel Perry, and running at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

Sketch comedy trio Chris O’Bray, Raechel Fisher and Carly Telford take us through a series of comedic, sometimes bizarre, scenarios: a cooking show for poor people, hosted by O’Bray in old lady drag; and a pair of entitled, dick-obsessed slackers (Fisher and Telford in drag) get broromantic to the tune of You Don’t Bring Me Flowers—returning later with O’Bray in a three-man boy band. There’s the misadventures of Calvin (O’Bray), who finds himself trapped in the oddest places—and his pissed of (recent) ex (Fisher), Olive Garden manager (Fisher), and even his mom (Telford) and dad (Fisher) refuse to help. And then there’s the Ouija Board Dating Game, where bachelorette Demi (Fisher) poses a series of compatibility questions to three dead celebrity bachelors (Telford, O’Bray and a surprise guest).

Shouts to the cast for going all-out in their commitment to character and outrageous antics. Telford and Fisher are especially funny as the two slacker bros; and O’Bray’s cooking lady is something of a low-rent Julia Child. And nice work from the trio on the boy band harmonies!

It’s a mad, mad work of bizarre wacky times. And you can wash it all down with a Dougie Ford Buck a Beer beer while you bop your head to the music and marvel at humanity’s endless quirks.

Swallowed Whole continues at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse for two more performances: July 13 at 6:45 and July 14 at 8:00; check the show page for advance tickets.

Toronto Fringe: Fear & loathing in the workplace in the razor-sharp, brutally honest dark comedy The Huns

Breanna Dillon, Cass Van Wyck & Jamie Cavanagh. Set & costume consulting by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Steven McLellan.

 

One Four One Collective presents The Huns, a razor-sharp, timely new play by Michael Ross Albert, directed by Marie Farsi and running in the Streetcar Crowsnest Guloien Theatre. It’s all hands on deck, after a break-in at a tech company office; and an international conference call meeting devolves into local power plays and startling revelations in this darkly funny, brutally honest workplace comedy.

It’s Friday morning and office manager Iris (Breanna Dillon), recently returned from leave, has gathered colleagues Pete (Jamie Cavanagh) and Shelley (Cass Van Wyck), a contract interim office manager, into a boardroom for an international conference call meeting to communicate and troubleshoot last night’s office break-in at their location. Ironically, this is a tech company; and Iris, who is not happy with the technical issues thwarting her attempts at projecting her presentation onto their flat-screen TV, is having a terse conversation with IT. Pete, who was in the office during the break-in, is technically on vacation and has a plane to catch for his destination bachelor party; and Shelley is calmly standing by, playing peacemaker, smoothing over rough patches, and ready to jump in to assist in any way she can.

Dialled into the meeting are colleagues from offices in Montreal, Texas and London (voice-over by Claire Armstrong, Blue Bigwood-Mallin, Izad Etemadi, Marie Farsi, David Lafontaine, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Emilie Leclerc, Daniel Pagett, Tyrone Savage, Andy Trithardt, Jenni Walls and Richard Young—sound design by Trithardt). CEO Roman is otherwise engaged in London, so his VP wife Leanne has dialled in from a windy outdoor location, adding to the technical comedy of errors. On top of all of this, the office dealing with broken A/C, a garbage strike and various other issues around having just moved into an old building.

Things devolve pretty quickly once it’s revealed that the meeting is about something way more serious than just a handful of stolen laptops. And things get even more brutal for the gang around the table when—believing everyone has left the conference call—Iris comes after Shelley in a power play aimed at destroying any favour or credibility that Shelley has garnered during her few weeks in the position. This is exacerbated by Pete’s confirmation of Iris’s suspicions that everyone likes Shelley and wants her to stay on, including Roman. And things go from bad to worse when other, deeply personal, revelations emerge.

Outstanding work from the cast, including those on the phone, bringing sharply drawn, fully-rounded performances that could easily descend into caricature. Dillon does a remarkable job with Iris’s tightly wound, controlling edge—offset by her fears of being usurped by a new, younger employee. Iris’s put-on, chirpy corporate tone and take-charge demeanour belie her dread of being replaced and resentment over being undervalued. Cavanagh is a likeable goof of a bro as Pete, who may come off like a jack-ass who only cares about himself, but actually does care about his job and his colleagues. If Pete really didn’t think he needed to be there for this meeting, he’d be heading to the airport. And Van Wyck’s performance as Shelley unpacks a calm, cool, professional vibe that gradually reveals feelings of desperation and being adrift, not to mention brutally honest insights about the corporate world in general. Shelley’s “good servant” but circumspect professionalism contrasts nicely with Iris’s sense of entitlement and resentment. And does Iris really love her job—or is that just something she tells herself to make all the pain and sacrifice bearable?

While a corporate office environment may talk the good talk about a collegial professional attitude of teamwork, loyalty and meritocracy, this can often be a bullshit façade for the office politics realities of back-stabbing, power-grabbing and favouritism. Knowing and accepting this may help ease the soul-sucking nature of workaday life—but, despite needing to work for a living, we all need to ask ourselves how much toxicity we can suck up for a paycheque.

The Huns continues in the Streetcar Crowsnest Guloien Theatre for three more performances: July 11 at 5:30, July 12 at 10:15 and July 14 at 4:00; check the show page for advance tickets. Book ahead for this one folks; these guys are selling out.

Hearts & minds poisoned to a tragic conclusion in Shakespeare BASH’d powerful, intimate, thought-provoking Othello

Front: E.B. Smith & Catherine Rainville. Back: James Graham. Photo by Jonas Widdifield.

 

Toronto favourite Shakespeare BASH’d continues its 2018-19 season with a deep-dive into one of the most complex, messily human plays in the Shakespeare canon: Othello. Directed by James Wallis, assisted by Olivia Croft, and featuring a stellar cast, Othello opened last night for a short run this week at The Monarch Tavern. Before our eyes, hearts and minds are poisoned—and deeply human flaws exposed—along the way to a tragic finale in this intimate, powerful production.

Right off the top, Iago (James Graham) plants seeds of doubt and unrest, playing on sentiments of racism, prejudice and misogyny as, from the shadows and with the aid of the jealous, entitled Roderigo (Jeff Dingle, bringing comic relief in a goofy turn as the foolish would-be suiter), drops the bomb on Venetian senator Brabantio (played with candid self-righteous anger tinged with heart-wrenching resignation by David Mackett) that Othello (E.B. Smith), a general with the Venetian army, and his daughter Desdemona (Catherine Rainville) have had carnal knowledge of each other. Iago won’t stand for Othello’s glorified station as a respected, successful general and especially objects to Cassio’s (Dylan Evans) recent promotion over him; and Roderigo wants Desdemona for himself. Seething with resentment and jealousy over men who have that which they do not, both have their minds set on vengeance and scheme to claim that which they feel belongs to them.

Smugly, even gleefully, relating his plans throughout, the cunning Iago speaks directly to us as he maps out how, step by step, he intends to turn Othello against Cassio and Desdemona, all the while using the foolish Roderigo as his own personal bank account and sidekick, and his trusting wife Emilia (Jennifer Dzialoszynski), who serves Desdemona, as an unwitting accomplice. And all while pretending to be everyone’s friend and confidante.

Poisoning hearts and minds by playing on people’s deepest fears, prejudices and weaknesses, as well as their egos—all the while dropping pearls of apt wisdom on his respective targets—Iago manipulates and orchestrates a falling out between Othello and his friend/second in command Cassio, and gradually makes Othello distrust Desdemona’s fidelity, which he inflames by encouraging Cassio to turn to Desdemona to speak on his behalf to Othello. And that damned handkerchief—a treasured gift from Othello to Desdemona, left behind by her and found by Emilia, who gives it to Iago to please him—becomes the last straw when it is found in Cassio’s chambers. Tormented by rage and despair over his belief that Desdemona has been untrue with his best friend Cassio, that seemingly small thing pushes Othello past the edge of reason, with dire and tragic results.

A powerful, compelling performance from Smith as the tragic hero Othello; a soldier’s soldier, forced by systemic racism and oppression to constantly prove himself as a man and as a general, Othello’s great love for Desdemona becomes his downfall as Iago’s machinations work on his jealousy and sense of honour; and even more importantly, his doubts of deserving her as his partner and equal. Rainville exudes a quiet, but luminous, presence as the loyal, tender Desdemona; eschewing social mores and risking the condemnation of her family and friends, Desdemona courageously and authentically follows her heart to be with Othello. Drawn together in a relationship of mutual ‘otherness’—Othello navigating racism and Desdemona dealing with misogyny—he loves her gentle generosity of spirit and she his bravery and perseverance.

Graham is entitled sociopathic perfection as the cunning, vengeful Iago; kind to be cruel as weaves his web of fake news, mistrust and hatred among good, trusting people, Iago is the diabolical puppet master of the tragic tale. Dzialoszynski is both delightful and heartbreaking as Iago’s sassy, witty and neglected wife Emilia; longing to please her husband and, without malice, she becomes an unknowing accomplice in the tragic events that unfold between Othello and Desdemona. And Evans is adorably boyish and cocky as the eager, ambitious young Cassio; flawed and foolish in his own way, Cassio’s reputation and bromance with Othello are tarnished when he fails to govern his wayward behaviour—and his careless treatment of lover Bianca (a playful turn from Natasha Ramondino) signals a man boy with some growing up to do.

Great work all around from this outstanding cast, which also features Melanie Leon (as the stalwart Montana, Othello’s predecessor in Cyprus), Wilex Ly (the fastidious Lodovico) and Julia Nish-Lapidus (the politically apt Duchess and the hilarious drunken party girl Clown).

Just like The Merchant of Venice continues to spark debate over being an anti-Semitic play or a play about anti-Semitism, so too does Othello have at its core the debate of racist play vs. a play about racism. No matter which side of the debate you’re on, there’s no doubt that these plays both reveal, in a very raw and human way, the ways in which the elite dominant culture—in this case, white Christian males—wields its own sense of entitlement and keeps a tight grip on power as it keeps the ‘other’ in their place through systemic oppression based on religion, race and gender. (Sound familiar?) And the sad truth that even good men can be pushed too far, with serious and tragic consequences.

Othello continues at the Monarch Tavern until February 10; it’s a super short run and an intimate venue—and they’re already sold out—but if you get there early and get on the wait list, you may just luck out and find yourself a seat.

Check out this great interview on the debate on Othello being a racist play or a play about racism with actors Smith and Rainville by Arpita Ghosal on Sesaya.