Review: Grab ‘Em By The Pussy (Theatre ARTaud/Filament Incubator)

Graphic provided by the companyTheatre Passe Muraille presents a politically driven ‘surrealist vaudeville farce’ on stage in Toronto

Watching “Grab ‘Em By The Pussy” – Or How To Stop Worrying & Love The Bomb, a “surrealist vaudeville farce” presented by Theatre ARTaud in conjunction with Filament Incubator at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, is like scrolling through the political parts of your Facebook feed. Alternately depressing and satisfying, it provides plenty of stimulation to keep the viewer entertained and feeling outraged, guilty or virtuous. However, after you look up and realize hours have passed, there’s the overarching feeling of emptiness: what have you accomplished in that time?

Antonin Artaud was known for his “Theatre of Cruelty,” a school of theatrical practice that sought to wake an audience up from complacency via staged agitation of the senses. Basically, this constant assault was supposed to get rid of the destructive emotions and tendencies of the subconscious trapped beneath the veneer of civilization. That’s what this show is trying to do.

In practice, it walks a very fine line between being a communal cry of rage, a catharsis for a preached-to choir, and an accusation against complacency. Certainly, it makes no pretense of attempting to reach Trump supporters or allies.

It all starts with the preshow, where the three consistent characters (an older male clown figure who wields an American flag baseball bat, a female violinist, and the spoiled child in charge of whacking the gong to announce scene titles) talk directly to audience members. They greet each person, issuing Nietzschean pronouncements such as “God is dead, and we have killed him.”

There is also a small amount of audience participation during the show; not oppressive, but purposefully discomfiting, particularly during my matinee performance where there were more performers than audience members. I have to hand it to the whole cast for their complete commitment at all times in the face of small numbers. Total dedication is the only way to pull this off.

The actors have a lot to pull off: circus-like aerials, gymnastics bordering on contortionism, masked clowning, juggling, some lovely raw singing, sketches, using glowsticks to create both beautiful and disturbing imagery, and a strange obsession with ducks (one sketch, which might as well be the show’s motto, continually declares “Fuck-A-Duck” angrily, morosely, resignedly. Indeed.) There’s screaming angst, but humour, too, in scenes like one portraying a terrorist’s job interview.

The show asks who the real monster is: the monster that Dr. Frankenstein creates, or the scientist himself? The Facebook activism feel (taking on everything and focusing on nothing) continues with sketches about #environmentalism, the #SayHerName movement, and #TrumpTweets, all pointing at the “caveman” within.

Subtle it isn’t. That doesn’t mean there isn’t nuance, but the baseball bat our lead clown carries might as well be hitting you in the face. This is particularly true in the scenes that make use of Trump’s own language. His words are chilling, but since we’ve heard them so many times, I found the riffs that did not directly mention him to be more compelling. Much of the power, in fact, comes from the interlinked pieces about women by Haley Peltz, with women speaking for women (the cast is 7/9ths female).

The website says the show is two hours, but it’s really about two and a half. This is a long time to sit in the Backspace, particularly when there is a very natural ending point at the two-hour mark, a cyclic resolution to the story of our main vaudevillians. What baffled me was the additional 25 minutes of show, where the play veered suddenly from surrealism into an emotional scene more in line with traditional realism. Well-performed, it struck me more as a compulsory-attendance workshop for playwright Rouvan Silogix’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? update than a conclusion to what we’d just watched.

In the end, I felt appreciative, but not purged; empty, but not by design. But, you know what? Fuck-A-Duck.

Details:

  • Grab ‘Em By The Pussy plays until November 5, 2017 at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Ave.)
  • Tickets range from $15 to $75 and can be purchased online, in person, or by calling the Arts Box Office at 416-504-7529
  • Audience Advisory: This play contains mature language and themes, as well as images of Nazi symbols and violence

Graphic provided by the company

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