There is a punchline to Circle Circle’s A Man Walks into a Bar playing at the Factory Theatre Studio as part of the Next Stage Theatre Festival. But it’s more like a gut-punch: it hits low, it hits hard, and it hits close to home. And everybody needs to see it.
A woman (Rachel Blair, who also wrote the show) attempts to tell a joke with the help and encouragement of a man (Blue Bigwood-Mallin). Moving in and out of the world of the joke wherein a woman server repeatedly encounters a male patron, the play examines not just the power dynamics of the service industry, but how the power of the story can never quite bridge the gap to make those in power listen.
It is a visceral, uncomfortable, and tiring play.
Bigwood-Mallin is equal parts charming and scary. At first he seems slightly irritating, and Blair’s counters make you question whether or not your own judgement is off. He’s just trying to help, right?
When he becomes domineering, appropriating and reconstructing the woman’s joke, I couldn’t help but feel resigned. I’d known what was coming but Bigwood-Mallin manages to fly just enough under the radar to make you hope he’ll be different.
Blair, for her part, makes herself the centre of every scene, even when it’s just to hide away. It’s the way she doesn’t speak up that tells her story.
I’d be interested to find out how many people in the audience followed her when she escaped to the corners versus following the way Bigwood-Mallin chose to take up the space.
There is one line that sums up the dynamic so completely. Frustrated at the nature of the woman’s joke, the man gets angry. When the woman offers a conciliatory version, he says, “I’ll let you” tell the story that way.
I was so angry. Look, this is a show that is not fiction. I know this story. I know a lot of people who know this story, who see the joke and live it. Blair isn’t trying to sugar coat her point and it makes everything land naturally, with that awful knowledge that there’s no resolution.
It just is.
If there’s any weakness to the show it’s that I can see so many ways the world can be tweaked to examine even more complex questions of power and privilege. I hope this play gets a chance in publication because I’d love to see it interpreted with other dynamics and see what other voices highlight with it.
A Man Walks into a Bar is a must-see, even if I left feeling like I wish I didn’t have to look.
- All Next Stage Theatre Festival performances are being held at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst St.)
- Tickets for Mainstage and Studio shows are $15 and Ante-chamber performances are $10
- Showtimes and ticket information are available at fringetoronto.com/next-stage-festival/
Photo of Rachel Blair by Tanja Tiziana