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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NSTF: Giving the last word where last word’s due in the startling, sharply pointed, satirical JONNO

Jason Deline and Erica Anderson in JONNO. Costume design by Christina Urquhart. Set design by Chandos Ross. Lighting design by Steve Vargo. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Rabbit in a Hat Productions presents Alix Sobler’s JONNO, directed by Paul Van Dyck for the Toronto Fringe Next Stage Theatre Festival, running now at Factory Theatre.

JONNO was inspired by a famous sexual assault case that saw a popular Canadian radio personality put on trial—we all know who—and comes in the wake of subsequent sexual harassment and assault scandals that have called out Hollywood celebrities and, most recently, a prominent Canadian theatre artistic director. Delving into the mind of the perpetrator and providing a platform for the myriad complex responses from, and impact on, the survivors—the play speaks beyond any one particular case.

Jonno (Jason Deline) hosts a popular talk radio show; his rich, full tones open the episode with a spoken word essay, and his charming interview style doesn’t shy away from confrontation. One by one, we see his romantic encounters with women turn violent: feminist blogger Marcy (Erica Anderson), singer/songwriter Dana (Parmida Vand) and sex worker Bernadette (Glenda Braganza). The only witness is Mr. Donkey Long Ears (Allan Michael Brunet), a stuffed toy from his childhood who he shields from seeing too much.

When word of his actions goes public, he is visited by Maureen (Alanis Peart), a corporate rep from his employer who has some exploratory and pointed personal questions to ask. A self-professed feminist and lover of women, Jonno genuinely sees nothing wrong with what he’s done—he sees his sexploits as being simply imaginative and out of the ordinary.

The women he choked, hit, kicked and coerced into sexual activity would say otherwise. But, unlike Jonno, who’s perfectly clear and happy to rationalize the events surrounding the encounters, the women are left wondering what the fuck happened and try to make sense of it all as they second guess, struggle with self-doubt and give him second chances. And while the responses of the women are different, all are valid as they play over events in their minds and debate the situation with each other.

The shocking moments of sexual violence are balanced nicely by satirical scenes of corporate investigation, surreal conversations between Jonno and Long Ears, and some darkly funny girls’ night out debates over wine. And the imaginative, effective staging aptly illustrates the serial nature of Jonno’s behaviour, while creating space for the more playful, theatrical elements of the piece.

Amazing work from the cast on this sensitive and infuriating subject. Deline does a great job with the public and private faces of Jonno: the smooth-talking, accomplished, pro-woman radio host and the callous, violent and sociopathic misogynist. Brunet makes an excellent Long Ears; inspired by Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, he is sweetly droopy and sulky—and acts as both witness and counsellor to Jonno’s actions. A childhood toy/imaginary friend, he is Jonno’s displaced conscience and child-like innocence—even, perhaps, humanity.

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Alanis Peart, Jason Deline & Allan Michael Brunet in JONNO. Costume design by Christina Urquhart. Set design by Chandos Ross. Lighting design by Steve Vargo. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The women in the cast make for a powerful unit of their own. Like Jonno, these characters are attractive, intelligent and accomplished in their own right—and each takes the journey from victim to survivor in her own way. Philosophical and lyrical, Vand’s Dana strives to gain an understanding through conversation with Jonno. Anderson’s wide-eyed activist Marcy thrives in dialogue with fellow survivors—and finds her inner warrior as a result. Braganza’s Bernadette is sensuous, irreverent and outspoken; surprisingly conservative, Bernadette is a reminder to not judge a book by its cover. And Peart is a hilarious powerhouse as the mercurial, assertive Maureen, who fights fire with fire when she puts Jonno in the hot seat.

With shouts to the creative team for bringing this starkly real and magical world together: Christine Urquhart (costume), Chandos Ross (set), Steve Vargo (lighting), Richard Feren (composer and sound), and Jade Elliot (fight and intimacy coordinator).

In the end, while we may be able to muster a modicum of sympathy for the devil, we believe the women—and whatever personal history or demons Jonno may have do not excuse his actions.

Giving the last word where last word’s due in the startling, sharply pointed, satirical JONNO.

JONNO continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace till January 14; for exact dates/times and advance tickets, visit the show page.