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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A family confronted with its own #MeToo secret in the complex, honest Lies and Consequences

You can’t change the past, but you can share it.

Rare Day Projects presents Carol Libman’s Lies and Consequences, directed by Jeanette Dagger and running this week only at Red Sandcastle Theatre. With the genesis of the play occurring well before the emergence of the #MeToo movement, playwright Libman was inspired to return to it and complete the script—and tell this story.

Lauded popular author Martha (Tara Baxendale) is under pressure to complete her next novel, inspired by Catherine the Great, as she juggles the scheduling nightmare that is her professional and personal life. Struggling with writer’s block, but looking forward to catching up with her sister Cathy (Martha Breen) at an upcoming weekend of celebration around her cousin/BFF Peter’s (Ryan Bannon) science award ceremony, she’s suddenly thrown back into the past when a drunken make-out session with her journalist boyfriend Andre (Derek Perks) goes from clumsily enthusiastic to overly aggressive, triggering the memory of a childhood incident of sexual assault.

Confiding in Cathy, Martha shares how their uncle John (Christopher Kelk)—Peter’s father and their deceased father’s brother—attempted to sexually assault her while they were alone at her home, retrieving chairs for a family picnic; she was 10 years old at the time. Peter’s wife Karen (Clara Matheson) has invited the whole family to a dinner in Peter’s honour—but Martha finds herself unable to attend, as she wishes to avoid all contact with John. She also doesn’t want to spoil Peter’s weekend by telling him what happened with John. Still wanting to see her cousin, she drops by his hotel room to congratulate him and decline the dinner invitation—where she bumps into John.

A confrontation between Martha and John in the hotel hallway grabs the attention of Karen and Peter, who invite them back into their room to learn what is amiss; they are soon joined by Cathy. Revelations, denial and gaslighting ensue, as the family divides into those who believe Martha and those who believe John’s version of the story—that Martha’s assertions are the result of childish misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

Lovely work from the cast on this timely, sensitive topic—covering the gamut of responses to a family incident of assault on a child. Baxendale does a nice job balancing Martha’s sharply intelligent and tightly wound adult side with the haunted, fearful child within. The past keeps rearing its ugly head, and Martha must find the courage to confront it if she’s going to have any peace. Kelk’s performance as John deftly combines the likeable with the deplorable; the supportive and trusted favourite uncle accused of having dark, secret desires—which John vehemently denies, spins and gaslights his way around. Classic victim-blaming and shaming, as the perpetrator makes himself out to be the wronged party as the survivor struggles with self-doubt and self-blame.

As Cathy, Breen brings a bubbly, positive, supportive light to the dark fog of Martha’s situation; open-minded, open-hearted and listening, Cathy is sharply contrasted by Matheson’s prim, controlling Karen—who seems to care more about avoiding disruption to her perfectly orchestrated celebration plans for Peter’s award. Bannon is adorakable as the brilliant but disorganized Peter, giving the performance an affable, absent-minded professor flavour. And Perks is both devilishly charming and sweetly supportive as Martha’s boyfriend Andre; not as woke as he might think, Andre’s willing to listen, learn and change his behaviour.

The ripples of sexual assault are far-reaching, impacting the survivor’s perceptions of time, space and intimacy—and, in this case, family dynamics. Internalized shame, self-blame, and the fear of not being believed or heard have silenced Martha, leaving her haunted and second-guessing herself. And it isn’t until she’s able to share her experience with Andre, who realizes he was in the wrong that drunken date night, that she’s able to fully communicate what was behind her reaction to his advances—and ultimately move on from the past.

Lies and Consequences continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until May 5, with evening performances at 8 pm May 2-4; and matinées at 2 pm on May 4 and 5. Tickets ($25 general; $20 for students/seniors/arts workers) are available at the door (cash only), online or by calling 1-800-838-3006.

 

Women’s stories across the ages in the sharp-witted, illuminating & timely Top Girls

Jordi O’Dael (Gret), Jennifer Fahy (Patient Griselda), Charlotte Ferrarei (Pope Joan), Alison Dowling (Marlene), Lisa Lenihan (Isabella Bird), Tea Nguyen (Lady Nijo). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its timely, updated production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls last night, directed by Alysa Golden, assisted by DJ Elektra. Sharp-witted, illuminating and theatrical, Top Girls is a both an observation and commentary of women’s lived experiences across the ages. Written in 1982 and given a contemporary framing in this production, it’s both funny and sad how little has changed for women in terms of opportunity, oppression, and the expectations of the spaces they occupy and the roles they play—a timely undertaking in the age of #MeToo and #timesup.

We open on a fantasy dinner party, hosted by Marlene (Alison Dowling), who is celebrating her promotion at the Top Girls employment agency. Her guests include the fastidious Victorian world traveller Isabella Bird (Lisa Lenihan); 13th century Japanese concubine and material girl Lady Nijo (Tea Nguyen); Gret, the coarse, lusty subject of Breughel painting “Dulle Griet” (Jordi O’Dael); the esoteric, philosophical Pope Joan (Charlotte Ferrarei); and the unquestioningly obedient Griselda, from Chaucer’s “The Clerk’s Tale” (Jennifer Fahy). The women share stories of love, marriage, motherhood, travel, oppression and hardship as they eat, drink and descend into drunken stupor.

Shifting into present day, we meet Marlene’s niece Angie (Rebekah Reuben), who lives in the country with her mother, Marlene’s sister Joyce (Nyiri Karakas), and spends most of her time with best friend Kit (Naomi Koven), who is several years younger. More than just a handful of a teenager, Angie is troubled, young for her age, and adrift in her life; mistrusting and disrespecting of her mother, she dreams of getting away and learning the truth about herself.

We get a glimpse of the Top Girls employment agency, populated by female recruiters, the office abuzz with Marlene’s upcoming move to her own office and greater things. Not everyone is thrilled, however, and a male colleague’s wife Mrs. Kidd (Lenihan) pays a visit to protest his being passed over. Marlene’s colleagues Win (Claire Keating) and Nell (Grace Thompson) interview prospective recruits— including a couple of ambitious, vague 20-somethings (April Rebecca) and an overlooked, undervalued 40-something (Peta Mary Bailey). Angie arrives on the scene, having gone AWOL from home and inviting herself to stay at Marlene’s.

Jumping a year into the past, Marlene visits Joyce and Angie—tricked by Angie with an invitation that supposedly came from Joyce. The family dynamic of estrangement between the estranged sisters comes into focus, as does a life-changing family secret.

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Naomi Koven (Kit), Nyiri Karakas (Joyce). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Lovely work all around from this considerable, all-female cast, with several actors playing multiple characters. Stand-outs include Dowling as the sharp, bold and unapologetic Marlene, who’s executed some major shifts in her life to get where she is, in spite of the naysaying and resentment from family and male colleagues. Reuben is both exasperating and poignant as the immature, lost Angie; like her mother, we come to worry for her future—she can’t hide out and play in the backyard with her little friend Kit (played with sweet, wise child energy by Koven) forever. Karakas brings a home-spun rural edge to the gruff, worn-out Joyce; unlike Marlene, who couldn’t get out of town fast enough, Joyce stayed in their hometown to raise Angie.

Keating and Thompson make a great pair as the gossipy, snippy and ambitious Top Girls recruiters, interviewing their respective prospects with the impervious attitude of entitled gate keepers. And O’Dael brings both great comedy and drama as Gret, with her hearty appetite, lust for life and hair-raising tale of her campaign against the demons of Hell.

Golden’s theatrical, multimedia staging is both technically effective and dramatically compelling, as scenes shift from fantasy to reality, and present to past—Teodoro Dragonieri’s set largely constructed from doors, an apt image for the production. Scene changes feature a spritely young Dancer (a confident, mischievous and willowy Estella Haensel); and Viv Moore’s elegant, expressive choreography is playfully and tenderly accompanied by Richard Campbell’s sound design. Projected backgrounds (projection design by Madison Madhu) mark the change of space and passage of time, form urban to rural, and light to dark.

While the lives, times and stories of these women vary dramatically, crossing a broad range of lived experience, the themes of class, female identity and male entitlement emerge as common threads. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It is comic in its tragedy that, in 2019, half of the world’s population is still held back, to varying—and sometimes violent and criminal—degrees, from achieving its full potential. On the upside, we see these women persevere and push back—breaking rules and shattering expectations to thrive and live their dreams.

Top Girls continues this weekend on the Alumnae mainstage until February 2; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only).

The run includes a pre-show Panel “Women, Power and Success in the Age of Me Too” on January 24 at 6:30 pm; and a post-show talkback with the director and cast on January 27.

Check out the trailer by Nicholas Porteous:

 

Department of corrections: The original post misnamed the lighting designer as Jan Hines in the two photo credits; it’s actually Jay Hines. This has been corrected.

Portrait of a family in messy, human shades of grey in the intimate, intense, complex What I Call Her

Charlie Gould & Ellie Ellwand. Lighting design by Imogen Wilson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

In Association—which led a sold-out production of Ellie Moon’s Asking For It last season—partners with Crow’s Theatre once again, this time with the world premiere of Moon’s intimate, intense and complex What I Call Her, directed by Sarah Kitz and opening to a sold-out house at Streetcar Crowsnest last night. Exploring a family dynamic of abuse, estrangement, grief and reconciliation, What I Call Her gives us the messy—ultimately human—blacks, whites and greys of family relationships shaped by trauma, conflicting memory and divergent lived experiences.

Estranged from her mother and younger sister Ruby, and recovering from childhood abuse at the hands of her mother, English MA student/writer Kate (Charlie Gould) now finds herself navigating the myriad mixed emotions of her mother’s impending death. Triggered by her mother’s distant death bed, as well as her mother’s startlingly contrasting history of abuse, abusive behaviour and philanthropy for survivors, Kate starts writing a frank obituary for her mother. Her supportive, live-in boyfriend and women’s ally Kyle (Michael Ayres) acts as her anchor, sounding board and Devil’s advocate on the idea of posting it on Facebook.

When Ruby (Ellie Ellwand) surprises them with a late-night arrival at their apartment, the family conflict—in particular, Ruby’s contradictory and hugely different experiences of childhood and their parents—gets too close to home. While Ruby’s appearance sparks Kate’s rage over the family’s denial of her experience, she’s got some anger to unpack as well; and the sisters face-off over their shared history and their mother’s desire for a death bed reunion and subsequent redemption.

The finely-tuned three-hander cast of What I Call Her plays out the various levels of family conflict in a series of contrasts—in moments of quiet and explosion, trauma and comfort, remembering and forgetting—turning the blacks and whites of family history, memory and corresponding emotional/psychological responses into complex, messy and profoundly human shades of grey.

What I call her 1 - Michael Ayres, Charlie Gould - by Dahlia Katz
Michael Ayres & Charlie Gould. Lighting design by Imogen Wilson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Gould’s broken, neurotic, sharply intelligent Kate can be self-involved, but also self-aware; and Kate’s self-professed knack for hyperbole is matched only by her lonely, hopeless sense of familial gaslighting. As Ruby, Ellwand is both adult and baby sister; brutally honest and perceptive, but needing support and validation. While Ruby’s directness with Kate tends toward cruelty, she desperately needs Kate right now. And Aryes’ Michael is that sweet, #MeToo woke good guy you want to see your sister with. Michael’s calm, quiet demeanour is a perfect foil to Kate’s mercurial outbursts of emotional activity—but, caught in the middle of and pushed away from this family war, and exhausted from keeping Kate from spinning off, even he can only take so much.

It’s especially noteworthy that Kate and Ruby’s mom, who is a fourth but unseen character in this piece, has a history of family abuse—both she and her own mother are survivors. And while it’s no excuse for her verbal and physical abuse of Kate, it’s a reason. The Kates of the world need be able to tell their stories; and as contradictory to the experiences of other family members and painful as these stories may be, they need to come out so real reconciliation and redemption can begin.

What I Call Her continues at Streetcar Crowsnest until December 8; advance tickets are available online. It’s an intimate venue and the show is getting a lot of well-deserved buzz, so booking ahead is strongly recommended.

 

 

Playfully whimsical, profoundly poignant & sharply candid ruminations in Dawna J. Wightman’s honey be

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Dawna J. Wightman. Photo by Vince Lupo.

 

Montreal-born Dawna J. Wightman is an award-winning Toronto-based actor, playwright and writer. Toronto audiences will recognize Wightman from her solo show Life as a Pomegranate, as well as Yellow Birds (Alumnae Theatre’s FireWorks Festival, 2015) and A Mickey Full of Mouse (Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 2016 and Toronto Fringe, 2017). She’s currently working on adapting her unpublished dark fantasy novel A Yarn of Bone & Paper, based on her ebook: Faeries Real & Imagined: How to Create Magical Adventures for Very Young Children, into a feature film. She’s also working with director Theresa Kowall-Shipp on her short Kid Gloves, set to shoot November 2018.

As part of the funding process for Kid Gloves, Wightman self-published and sold honey be, “a collection of sweet words and some that sting,” including hand-painted covers and “surprises” stuffed inside. The first 50-volume print run sold out in about a week; and a second run will be available this month, featuring cover art design by Wightman’s daughter Sabine Spare.

Much like Wightman’s theatre work, the stories, poems and snippets in honey be range from playfully whimsical to profoundly poignant to sharply candid—often all in the same story and sometimes autobiographical in nature. While there are no titles, each piece bears an italicized post-script at the end; in some cases, these take on a conversational and even self-deprecating tone, making for a personal, intimate read.

The themes of family, motherhood and friendship come up in several pieces. There’s the story about Mrs. Kay, written from the perspective of a precocious, neglected eight-year-old who finds a home with fellow misfit schoolmate Sandra Kay and her quirky family; and the goofy four-legged family member Bella in just a dog. Reminders that family can sometimes be found in unexpected places—and to never judge a book by its cover.

There’s heart-wrenching nostalgia with an ode to her son in little boy; and remembrances of wearing an itchy baby blue Phentex dress and being her mother’s go-fer at the bingo hall, in pretty little head. And the heartache and fumbling for what to say to a friend living with cancer tumble out in the visceral when we found out you had cancer and in the outpouring of loving, supportive words in the piece that follows.

Ruminations on body image and aging come up as well, from the erotic in late summer, to the sharply candid and calling bullshit on the ridiculous expectations placed on women’s bodies—professionally and personally—in tits and ass and #chubbyprettywoman, and the #MeToo shock of new neighbour.

Quirky, bittersweet, child-like grown-up, all of the stories in honey be are tinged with humour and poignancy, and the everyday acknowledgement of life’s remarkable moments. And one gets the sense that, beyond coming from a place of truth telling—there’s a deep longing to share these words. There’s a line in the movie Shadowlands, from a C.S. Lewis quote: “We read to know we are not alone”—one could easily also say “We write to let others know they are not alone.”

Copies of honey be will be available for $20.00 via emailing wightrabiit@gmail.com; website coming soon. Wightman will be performing a reading from the book at Stratford’s SpringWorks Festival on October 11.

 

Toronto Fringe: Trial by browser history in the razor sharp, darkly funny Featherweight

Kat Letwin, Michael Musi & Amanda Cordner. Photo by John Gundy.

 

Theatre Brouhaha is back at Toronto Fringe with with Tom McGee’s razor sharp, darkly funny look at judgement for the afterlife, Featherweight—inspired by Egyptian mythology and Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What The Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are—directed by McGee and running at The Paddock Tavern.

A customized courtroom of the Egyptian mythology persuasion takes form as The Paddock Tavern; presided over by Anubis (Amanda Cordner) and her servant Thoth (Kat Letwin)—in this case, for the judgement of the recently deceased Jeff (Michael Musi). Traditionally, the heart of the dead is put through the Trial of Osiris: Weighed against a feather to determine whether the soul moves on to the Field of Reeds or is devoured by the demon Ammit (who, in this case, lives in The Paddock’s kitchen).

The bar was an important place in Jeff’s life, hence its appearance as his place of judgement; Anubis appears as his ex-girlfriend and servant Thoth appears as a Downton Abbey-esque Butler. Weary of judging souls for the afterlife, and aggravated by a broken justice system, a suicidal Anubis ups the ante by adding Jeff’s browser history to the scale; and proceeds to summon witnesses from his life that aren’t included on the previously approved list. The fastidious, wry-witted Thoth is to be the channel for these crucial people from Jeff’s life—and she doesn’t like this plan at all.

Faced with the soul of his father—who also faced judgement in The Paddock—we get some insight into Jeff’s dysfunctional childhood, hanging out in the bar without any meaningful guidance from a father figure. And his browser history offers some damning evidence of complicity in several #MeToo incidents; in his case, indirect, as he wasn’t the perpetrator.

Stellar work from the three-hander cast; serving up compelling, entertaining and sharply focused performances in this quirky, edgy and sardonic tale. What does our online footprint say about us, our lives and our relationships with others—and should we be judged accordingly?

Featherweight has three more performances at The Paddock: tonight through Sunday at 8 pm; it’s sold out for the remainder of the run, but you can take your chances at the door for rush seats by arriving early.

Want to check if the show you want to see is sold out? The Toronto Fringe folks have set up a page for sold-out shows, updated daily.

 

Toronto Fringe: An intersectional heart-to-heart on the state of manhood in the candid, funny, brave We The Men

Sunday Muse, Mercy Cherian, Rachel Brophy & Sundance Nagrial. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Sam’s having the guys over at his cottage—and we’re all invited!

The back room stage of the Cadillac Lounge is transformed into the living room of Sam’s cottage as Soulo Theatre takes us behind the scenes of a heart-to-heart gathering on the state of manhood with its Toronto Fringe production of We The Men. Co-created by director Tracey Erin Smith and an ensemble of Dude for a Day workshop participants, and inspired by hearing men’s stories during Soulo Theatre’s Step To The Line events, women portray male characters—and the sexes come together from the other side of the gender divide in the hopes of bridging the gap and coming to a greater understanding.

The storytelling, which includes stories that emerged from male Step To The Line participants, draws on important and timely ongoing issues: Debates about complicity—direct or indirect—in #MeToo scenarios; societal, familial and cultural challenges and pressures; physical abuse and bullying; and struggles with identity, sexuality, loneliness and finding love. Heartfelt anecdotes and confessions emerge from the cocky, fart-filled party atmosphere as the men confront themselves and each other with their experiences, beliefs and perceptions—giving us a fly-on-the-wall perspective of men’s lives. And one is struck that, while women will naturally open up and have these kinds of conversations—revealing shame, vulnerability and confusion—it’s maybe not so easy or as common for men. And we all need to have those conversations.

Featuring energetic, entertaining and poignant performances from Rachel Brophy, Mercy Cherian, Jacqueline Dawe, Savoy Howe, Sunday Muse, Sundance Nagrial, Silvi Santoso, Savannah Binder and Todd, We The Men is a candid, funny and brave intersectional exploration of what it means to be a man in the 21st century.

We The Men continues at the Cadillac Lounge until July 15; check the show page for exact dates and times. For the inside scoop on the inspiration and creative process, check out this great interview with Tracey Erin Smith by She Does the City. And check out the show’s Facebook event page for bios and character descriptions.