Toronto Fringe: Peeling back the layers in the funny, frank, insightful feminist excavation Operation SUNshine

Jennifer McKinley takes us on an unusual reclamation project in her father’s basement bathroom in her one-woman show Operation SUNshine, directed by Clara McBride and running at St. Vladimir Theatre for Toronto Fringe.

Tasked with preparing her father’s home for sale, McKinley tackles the most complex—and unusual—part of the cleaning and purging process: the basement bathroom that was at one time part of her father’s friend Bill’s living space. Walls and ceiling have been wallpapered with Toronto Sun Sunshine Girl clippings. And as she carefully excises these women from their bathroom prison, she discovers more than just a collection of pin-up girls.

Seeing these images as a piece of childhood/family history—not to mention that they present real women living real lives away from their photo shoots—instead of simply scraping the photos off, McKinley chooses to carefully cut and peel. Rescuing these photos and the lives that go with them, she preserves as many of the images as she can and reads the news stories of the day on the other side of each photo page. What she finds are many stories of tragedy and loss—missing and murdered women and children, and the men who put them there—that still resonate 25 years later in that they are still all too common.

The physical activity of removing the photos becomes introspective, inspiring memories of family history, as well as curiosity about the lives of these women. Using specific physical and vocal attributes, McKinley creates a series of compelling, often funny, sharply defined characters, including her father and her younger selves—and a selection of her (and Bill’s) favourite Sunshine Girls. These are women who enjoy their bodies and their sexuality, in some cases promoting themselves and/or earning a living. The rescue mission turns into a feminist excavation—of these models, the accompanying male gaze and, most importantly, of personal self-discovery. She uncovers a hidden part of herself, one that involved choices intended to make herself invisible and safe.

Peeling back the layers in the funny, frank, insightful feminist excavation Operation SUNshine.

Operation SUNshine continues at St. Vladimir Theatre until July 15; advance tickets available online.

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Hilariously sexy good times – The Underpants

UnderpantsposterMen are silly. Then again, so are women. And we all become equally silly when we let our desires run away with us. And it’s especially fun when otherwise straight-laced, upstanding citizens toss their hang-ups aside as they get carried away.

The Underpants, Steve Martin’s adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s Die Hose – directed for Alumnae Theatre by Ginette Mohr, assisted by Caitlin English – reveals how the accidental shedding of a lady’s underpants in public throws a group of upright middle-class folks for a loop, with decidedly hilarious and sexy results.

It all starts out with sound designer and live piano accompanist Aaron Corbett entering, dressed in black pants and white shirt. He stops down centre and bows with a click of his barefoot heels, bringing the audience to attention. We are in 1910 Germany, in the home of Theo and Louise Maske.

The Maskes’ ordinary middle-class life is thrown into turmoil when, while watching a royal procession, Louise’s (Carolyn Hall) underpants fall down – a moment that gets noticed despite her quick and discreet retrieval. News of the event spreads, resulting in instant – and titillating – celebrity status for Louise. All much to the chagrin of her extremely conservative civil servant husband (Andrew Anthony). We also learn that Louise wants a baby, but Theo hasn’t touched her since their wedding night nearly a year ago. Boorish and uber-masculine, Theo is more of an arrogant, bigoted bully than the sweet-talking romantic Louise longs for.

Enter Versati (Scott Farley), a handsome young poet with a flair for the dramatic, who arrives at the house to inquire about a room for rent. Things get complicated when Louise accepts Versati’s application, only to learn that Theo has entered into an agreement with the hypochondriac barber Cohen (Michael Gordin Shore). Both prospective tenants are accepted – to share the room – and it turns out that both witnessed the “event” at the parade. And both are madly in love with Louise as a result.

Adding to the fun is the Maskes’ nosey upstairs neighbour Gertrude (Chantale Groulx), a woman of a certain age who longs to live vicariously through a young woman’s romantic life and who appoints herself Louise’s naughty fairy godmother in a plot to launch Louise into an affair with Versati. Then add to the mix a third tenant prospect, the elderly and stern Klinglehoff (Jacqueline Costa, doing triple duty – she’s also the set and lighting designer), and a surprise visit by the King (Farley) – and we have even more laugh-out-loud good times.

And, since this is a farce, plots and plans go awry – all in the most hysterical way, with loads of innuendo, physical comedy and a bit of potty humour. This fast-moving comedy does an excellent job of pointing and laughing at the foibles and hang-ups of the bourgeois majority – from their uptight and chauvinistic views on sex, tight-fisted ways with money and mistrust of minorities, to how easily people’s longings and desires can be played upon by the right person under the right circumstances. In the end, every character learns something about herself/himself, especially Louise, who grows into a self-possessed woman.

The Underpants features an excellent and highly entertaining cast. Hall is lovely as the adorable Louise, a loyal but neglected housewife with a progressive mind and searing urges, longing to be loved and romanced. Anthony does a nice job with man’s man Theo, who under all the machismo is a man who wants to live a proper, quiet life and provide for his wife so they can eventually afford a baby. Groulx is deliciously sly and lascivious as Gertrude, an older woman who is forced to acknowledge her own desires as she finds herself considering a younger man. Farley is part poet, part Casanova and part acrobat as Versati, a man who also longs for romance, and does a delightfully goofy turn as the King. Shore’s Cohen reveals a sweet, protective and lonely mensch beneath the hypochondriac; you just want to buy him a coffee and give him a hug. And Costa is a treat as Klinglehoff – the most uptight of the lot and quick to judge, but easily swayed – a young female actor masterfully carrying off the physical and mental postures of an extremely proper and severe old man. (Scroll down to the Alumnae blog post I reposted recently to see how Costa came to play Klinglehoff.)

With shouts to producer Jennifer McKinley, SM Karen Elizabeth McMichael, costume designer Sarah Joy Bennet and props mistress Bec Brownstone. And thanks to Alumnae Theatre for a lovely opening night reception, which included a lovely spread by member Sandy Schneider.

The Underpants runs on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage until October 5, with a talkback Q&A with the cast and creative team after the September 29 matinée.

So. What are you wearing? 😉