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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Freedom of expression & political oppression in a digital age in the chilling, intersectional, provocative Theory

Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

 

Under what circumstances should freedom of expression be censored or policed? At what point does politics, however liberal or progressive, become unforgiving and oppressive? Tarragon Theatre’s production of Norman Yeung’s Theory, directed by Esther Jun, assisted by Stephanie Williams, examines the impact of film and social media on modern-day discourse through an intersectional lens, where academia meets art—with chilling and provocative results.

I saw the genesis of Theory, first as a reading at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival and then as a full production at SummerWorks, back in 2010. It appeared again at Alumnae during FireWorks Festival 2013—at which point, at the suggestion of dramaturge Shirley Barrie, lead character Isabelle’s boyfriend was re-written as a female character. I missed the 2013 production, but was happy to see the evolution of the piece in the current Tarragon presentation, where Isabelle has a wife who is also a person of colour.

Rookie film studies prof Isabelle (Sascha Cole, in the role from the very beginning) has set up an online message board off the campus server—a bit of a rogue move that becomes even more so with an ‘anything goes’ policy. Her film theory students will self-moderate and there are no plans for censorship. And, in a classic Dead Poets Society moment, she has her students tear out the film screening list from the syllabus—full of white male directors—and replaces it with a more diverse, contemporary list. Even her core group of vocal, engaged students—Davinder (Bilal Baig), Safina (Asha James), Richard (Kyle Orzech) and Jorge (Anthony Perpuse)—have questions and misgivings about the nature of the message board and revised film list, which includes the controversial Baise Moi, translated into Rape Me in an English release.

Isabelle’s wife Lee (Audrey Dwyer)—a Black, tenured prof at the same university—also has reservations about the student message board; and like her, one can’t help but wonder if Isabelle is trying too hard to look cool and connect with her students as adults and academics. Racist and homophobic remarks begin to emerge on the message board—presented onstage via projection (design by Cameron Davis)—some of which are directed at other students.  And, while Isabelle insists that nothing offends her and refuses to censor the board—viewing the remarks in the context of fodder for adult, academic conversation and exploration—some of her students don’t see it that way.

Video messages start appearing, at first referencing films the class is studying, then getting increasingly graphic and violent, and directed toward Isabelle. Becoming obsessed with finding out who the perpetrator is, the strain on Isabelle and her relationship with Lee starts to show; she keeps putting off their plans to have a baby and starts spending an inordinate amount of time on the message board.

As the messages get more personal and close to home, showing up in her personal email, text messages and even on her doorstep, Isabelle blocks a user called @Richard69 and turns to department head Owen (Fabrizio Filippo) to see if she can launch a complaint or investigation to learn the identity of the student. It’s during this meeting that she learns there’s been a complaint launched against her. Isabelle begins to suspect the culprit is among her core group of students, but has no solid proof.

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Sascha Cole & Audrey Dwyer. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Outstanding work from the cast in this chilling multi-media psychological thriller. There’s a taut scholarly edge in Cole’s performance of Isabelle; and an awkwardness in Isabelle’s attempts to connect with her students on a laid back, personal level. Under pressure to make tenure, Isabelle must walk the line between provoking thought and keeping her students and  superiors happy. Dwyer’s good-humoured academic veteran Lee goes beyond being a great foil and complement to Cole’s Isabelle—she’s the sociopolitical conscience in the relationship and in the piece. A supportive and nurturing partner, Lee has no trouble calling Isabelle out when she’s neglecting their relationship or forgetting to check her privilege. Filippo gives a great turn as the cool guy department head Owen; like Isabelle, he’s invested in keeping everyone happy—but his flip, hip dude exterior belies the institutional administrator who must also answer to higher powers in the university.

Really nice, sharply drawn work from the student chorus. Baig’s sassy, queer South Asian Davinder and James’ earnest, politically aware Safina (Asha James), who is Black, are particularly aware of and sensitive to the homophobic and racist remarks posted online; and Safina is uncomfortable with some of the course content. Both are open and willing to expand their minds and engage in debate; but they understandably draw the line at hate messaging. Perpuse brings a fun class clown energy to Jorge, who posits that porn should be given equal consideration with other genres. And Orzech’s nerdy, curious Richard seems affable enough, but there’s a dark undercurrent to this curious, white kid as he pleads “context” to his observations on films featuring storytelling filtered through a racist lens.

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Bilal Baig, Anthony Perpuse, Asha James, Kyle Orzech & Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Isabelle realizes that she’s underestimated the power of a digital media and the accompanying anonymity of user names, which make for an easy, consequence-free platform for hate speech and intolerance; and she’s forced to examine her inconsistent handling of conversation that veers toward hate speech. Her progressive feminist liberal politics and attempts at provoking thought have pushed buttons and opened a Pandora’s box of alt-right ill will. Is she complicit in fostering oppression by holding back on deleting racist and homophobic comments? Timely in its recognition of alt-right backlash, Theory reminds us of the inevitable pendulum backswing on progressive sociopolitical change.

Theory continues in the Tarragon Extraspace until November 25. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at 416-531-1827.