Raw Matter and Filament Incubator bring lofty feminist goals to the stage in Toronto’s Kensington Market
Hot Kitchen/SECOND SHIFT by Raw Matter and presented by Filament Incubator, is a devised work of theatre, on stage at Kensington Hall. It’s a mashup of works by Jean Genet, Sylvia Plath and Silvia Federici that has something to say about feminism, housewifery, and the choices that women make (or have forced upon them).
It is visually inventive, often charming, and features at least one stand-out performance. However, its aggressively didactic nature and its period piece trappings cause it to fall just short of its lofty goals of current relevance and rawness.
When you walk into the space of Kensington Hall, an enjoyably transformed basement in Kensington Market, the set design feels like an art installation, in a good way. It’s all shades of pink, mountains of laundry, and an Astroturf garden growing real flowers. (There are a couple of pillars that obscure parts of the space that you may wish to avoid sitting behind.)
The sickeningly sweet space provides a great backdrop for the moments of disturbing imagery that occur, including a striking mass suicide using household implements and a claustrophobic and equally brutal final struggle.
The play is presided by a trio of smiling, heavily made-up and eyebrow-less housewives: Lysol (Alanna Dunlop), Maybelline (Veronika Brylinska) and Betty Crocker (Nicole De Angelis), who are here to tell us about the joys of the labour of love that is ‘50s/’60s-era homemaking in a performance that becomes more and more desperate.
It’s a comment on the performative nature of the “job” that’s not an official job, and it’s over the top in an almost Pythonesque satire, a feeling only underscored by the piece’s repeated use of John Philip Sousa’s Liberty Bell March (which became the Monty Python theme).
What we see doesn’t quite have the nuance of those more accomplished satirists, however, and often feels like it’s attacking a bygone era, which is a shame in a society that still faces many, many issues of sexism and inequality.
Mostly, it was easy for me as an audience member to feel superior and lose my critical thought by emphasizing the more dated ideas, such as the Kitchen Debate between Nixon and Khrushchev (yes, there’s a Nixon mask involved), over the layers of conflict in today’s discussions of emotional labour and rape culture.
This pre-Ms. Magazine vision of a woman’s role definitely still exists, but focusing on it seems like preaching to the choir; if you’re seeking out a devised theatre piece by an all-female collective in a Kensington Market basement, you likely already believe in the need for equality between the sexes.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t entertainment or richness to be found in the piece. Our trio of Stepford Wives dance, pose, and occasionally waver their way into our hearts. The silent Powered by (Rebecca Hooton), single-mindedly ploughing her way through chores throughout the play, provides a solid and and consistent presence without whom nothing functions (in fact, it’s strongly indicated her mind may be the performance venue).
Off to the side in the garden is M/Em (Daniela Pagliarello), whose frustration with the vision of femininity before her results in an absolutely captivating and intense performance (it doesn’t hurt that she gets the best lines and argument).
Bristling and twitching with pent-up frustration, she attempts to change the minds of the happy housewives, temporarily crumbling their united front. She brings to the play lyricism, a note of danger, and the relevance it’s been seeking. Issues such as compensation for housework and the lack of ability to even afford a home in the first place give us more connection and depth.
There is some minimal audience participation (if you’ve ever dreamed of throwing a baby at a stage, this is your chance) and the exuberance of the performers occasionally sends things flying audience-ward. It’s this exuberance that makes me eager to see what Raw Matter does next, as they explore and grow.
- Hot Kitchen/SECOND SHIFT runs until October 1, 2016 at Kensington Hall (56 Kensington Avenue)
- Performances run from Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm
- Tickets are $18 (plus a service fee) and can be purchased online
- Warnings: mature subject matter, some audience participation
Photo of Alanna Dunlop by Daniel Bagg