Contempt, now on the Toronto stage, is “impressive on many levels”
When I heard about the subject matter of Contempt, on now at The Storefront Theatre, I immediately knew I had see it. The premise – a woman hiring someone to have sex with her disabled, virgin, adult son – is one close to the heart of a sex workers’ rights activist like me.
So, once again this week, I went in to a theatre with high hopes. However, given the other representations of sex work I’ve seen in both film and theatre, I was very cautious with my optimism. I was right to be cautious, but I was also very satisfied by the end.
Sadly, this story did perpetuate some of the stigma sex workers (specifically “prostitutes”, to quote the script) face. The story reinforces the opinion that sexologists (the main character’s profession) “are NOT prostitutes.” Strictly speaking, they aren’t – though they do sometimes get paid to have sex with their clients.
It frames prostitution as bad, and places it in stark contrast to sexology, which is portrayed as valuable, legitimate work. Which it absolutely is – but so are all other forms of sex work. Prostitutes (aka escorts, or sex workers more broadly) also often provide wonderful, healing services to their clients, with or without a university degree.
However, this was a tiny part of the story that someone without my understanding of sex work, or my history of activism may not even pick up on. The intention may also have been to illuminate that double standard, rather than reinforce it. I’m unsure.
I’m pleased to report that aside from that questionable part, this show was very impressive on many levels.
What really stood out for both myself and my companion Caryhn were the performances. In almost every show I see, there’s a stand-out for me, but I found the entire cast phenomenal. If I were to give any extra dazzle points it would be to Freddie (Prince Amponsah) who in addition to wowing me with his performance did so mostly with only the use of his eyes.
Tara (the super-talented Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, and winner of the TIFF-edition Monologue Slam) was a pleasure to watch. I love how seamlessly she (and the whole cast) switched from the “real-life” scenes to the – somewhat bizarre but ultimately refreshing – fantasy scenes.
I found Freddie’s mother Sharon (played by Marcia Johnson) so believable as an overbearing, motor-mouthed, but ultimately sweet woman. Despite her penchant for fat-shamey jokes (another usual thorn in my side), she was delightfully inappropriate and delivered perfect pun after perfect pun. I feel that with less talented actors, some of the cheeky humour could have fallen horribly flat. I laughed out loud throughout.
Finally we have Ryan (Storefront Theatre founder and artistic director Benjamin Blais) the quintessential white douchebro who is blissfully unaware of his privilege and entitlement – or the harms he causes to others. His character – with his fragile masculinity, bound to his sexual prowess and penis size – is a sharp contrast to the other three.
We see his descent from fun-loving pothead to jealous boyfriend (whose girlfriend is suddenly about to have sex with a client), to almost-rapist, to sexual abuser, to frantic man on an emotional cliff. I found his performance, and the range of emotions he displayed, incredible to watch. My companion and I were both captivated from start to finish.
The amount of time dedicated to Ryan’s arc was a bit confusing to me, however. My companion suspects it’s because the writer (Brandon Crone) is a white guy writing what he knows – one who describes the juxtaposition of privilege and marginalization which arose during the writing process.
My questions about the meanings aside – of Ryan, of the pop-music sequences, of the dances – it all came together for me in a powerful, emotional, and ultimately touching way. At its core, this is a love story, and a beautiful one. Add in a creative set, unique text delivery, and almost non-stop laughs. Contempt is what I would call a fabulous piece of theatre.
- Contempt is playing until March 6, 2016 atThe Storefront Theatre (955 Bloor Street West)
- Shows run Monday to Saturday at 8pm, with an additional matinee on Sundays at 2pm
- Ticket prices range from $20-25, with special pricing for students, seniors, arts workers, disabled, and disability aids and are available online, or at the door
- Contempt is rated R and contains sexual language and scenes
Photo of Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah and Prince Amponsah provided by the company