Aftermath, now on stage in Toronto, is intense and challenging
In 1999, feminist activist and writer Andrea Dworkin was drugged and raped in Paris. Aftermath, adapted for the stage by Adam Thorburn from from an unpublished work of Dworkin’s, produced by Waterworks Company and playing at the Aki Studio, is her story in her own words.
This is not an easy production to watch, and it’s even harder to forget.
Aftermath is unusual to review because it is an essay, adapted for the stage with specific instructions as to how it was adapted. John Stoltenberg, life-partner and literary executor to Dworkin, discovered the essay after her death in 2005. It appeared to be “publication-ready,” but he didn’t do anything with it until 2014, when he decided it might work well on the stage.
Thorburn’s adaptation required shortening the work while retaining Dworkin’s exact words and the order of the essay. The result is a one-woman show with Helena Levitt playing Dworkin. Surrounded by piles of books and a ladder, Levitt embodies Dworkin, slowly breaking down the terrible event and its waves of impact on her life, past and present.
And don’t get me wrong, Levitt is great. She has an amazing ability to bring already powerful words to life. It’s hard not to get uncomfortable as the impact of abuse is discussed, particularly how it was passed along to someone close to the writer. I honestly think the show really has a perfect combination in these two things, a brilliant actor and impactful and stinging language. And yet the combination also makes it hard to sit through.
The problem for me is that Aftermath is a confessional essay. It’s not a ‘play,’ and not really a one-woman show, either. I mean that it really does feel like I am watching someone presenting a very personal and affecting essay, and in that way it’s both unnerving and tiring. It makes me feel that trying to look at it as a ‘show’ is nearly impossible because you hear a solid, pointed, and single-minded argument that never deviates in tone.
I recognize it’s an odd criticism, but the subject matter forced me to concentrate on the lack of variation or break in the emotional tumult presented. It is an hour and a half of straight discussion about rape culture, its impact on women, issues of gender and sexual violence, and, of course, Dworkin’s own experience.
I got tired. I know that Aftermath is a very important account from an influential feminist figure, but I couldn’t help it. Eventually I shut down under the barrage. And it ploughs, unrelentingly, forward.
I think, too, because the subject is so familiar to many people, women in particular, certain parts hit the same points over and over again in a way that I found genuinely taxing. Towards the end, it is a full on, no-holds-barred discussion of sexual assault, rape, consent, and rape culture; of internalized sexism. You support the vibrant and true anger and indignation presented, even as you start to feel that you just can’t do this anymore.
I don’t think it is possible to give much emotional variation because of the honesty of the piece, but as I was watching it unfold, I felt that I needed some little structural gap in the narrative to catch my breath. That gap doesn’t exist.
And that’s the awful truth, isn’t it? Dworkin’s experience was her reality. It remains a reality for many. And I don’t think it ever gets easier to hear, understand, or relate to. What Aftermath accurately presents is exactly that: all that remains after.
- Aftermath runs until September24th at the Aki Studio in the Daniels Spectrum (585 Dundas Street East).
- Show runs until Saturday, September 24, 2016 at 4:00pm and 8:00pm
- Tickets are $22 or $15 for students, seniors, and arts workers and can be purchased at the Aki Studio box office prior to the show, by phone at 416-531-1402, or online here
- Tickets for the Friday 4:00pm matinee are $12
- Audience Advisory: Show contains adult content including discussions of rape and sexual assault.
Photo of Helena Levitt courtesy Waterworks Company