Spin, playing at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, is a multimedia tribute to feminism and cycling
It was certainly worth the effort—braving the first real snowfall of the season—to catch Evalyn Parry’s tribute to cycling and feminism: Spin. Playing at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (where it premiered three years ago before its national tour), Spin is a multimedia performance that had me tapping my feet, dabbing my eyes and yearning for the chance to hop on a bike and change the world.
I first encountered Evalyn Parry about fifteen years ago. I fell in love with her elegant rhythms and artful phrasing. Since then, I’ve fallen out of touch with her work. When I happened upon news of this production, I knew it was time to get reacquainted. Am I ever glad I did! She’s a marvel; she really is!
After a little history lesson on turn of the century feminism, where she sings to us about some of the ladies who played pivotal roles in the fight for women’s rights (Amelia Bloomer and Frances Willard), Parry’s show focuses on the story of Annie Londenberry: the first woman to cycle around the world. She did this in 1895, and was quite the celebrity before falling into obscurity just before her death in 1947.
Annie is a fascinating figure and a real bad-ass. Her international adventure was supposedly set in motion by a wager between two Boston businessmen who challenged her to prove that she (as a woman) could hold her own amid the men who had traveled “round the world.” Financing her trip with sponsorships, she completed her journey in just over a year. The truth of this wager is questionable and Parry asks us to consider what deep desire might have fueled her thirst for adventure.
Parry uses her own passion for cycling to frame Annie’s story. In a beautiful bit of poetry, she suggests that Annie is calling out to her, across time, inviting her to pedal herself against the status quo. At the turn of the century, the popularization of the bicycle provided women with mobility and freedom; today, the bike can still provide any of us with the opportunity to go where we want and on our own terms. (“No gas, no oil, no war for this machine.” Parry’s words: sublime!)
Parry’s voice is hypnotic and she is a master of clever word play. She spins phrases and loops them around each other until you’re overwhelmed by the varied meanings that pop up here, there and everywhere. She gets your heart pumping with the adrenaline rush of freedom that wheels provide. Here’s a phrase that opens the show: two-wheeled words/to wield words. Repeat it over and over and you see how the phrase suddenly springs into action.
These ideas of action, momentum and progress drive the narrative. She plays with the layered meaning of spin and the text is bursting with feverish rebellion. Was Annie selfish and irresponsible to leave her family to go on a year-long adventure? Parry turns the question on us: when we discover what we are capable of, she asks, will we let them tell us no?
Despite the vital politics of female empowerment they reference, the songs are jaunty tributes to movement—how it feels and what it means. And the music is very inventive. Parry is accompanied by four musicians: three on strings and one on… a bicycle! Percussionist Brad Hart manages to gets some rather amazing sounds out of this bike. And from what I’ve read, it hasn’t even been altered significantly; the quality of sound is, for the most part, natural.
The set-up is whimsical. Bicycle parts have been blended into the costume design and scenery. Behind our main performers, there are some fun video projections by Beth Kates. They never become the focus of the production, but help to fill out the visual landscape. In these quirky montages, we are given a glimpse of the real Annie Londonderry and the places she visited.
Working with director Ruth Madoc-Jones, Parry has blended all elements into a spellbinding night of song, storytelling and experimental theatre. All aspects of this show are innovative and yet it feels classical. More to the point, it feels true and natural. And deeper still: very moving.
An intriguing piece of history, catchy music and a bicycle as a musical instrument: what more could you want for a night’s entertainment?
- Spin is playing until November 23 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander Street)
- Shows run Thursday to Saturday at 8PM, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:30PM
- Tickets are $25 to $37
- Tickets can be purchased through the Box Office: 416-975-8555 or buddiesinbadtimes.com
Photo of Evalyn Parry by Tanja-Tiziana