Hot Cuts (Birdtown and Swanville) 2018 SummerWorks Review

Photo by Slater Manzo

Hot Cuts, written and directed by Aurora Stewart de Peña and presented by Birdtown and Swanville at the 2018 SummerWorks Festival as a workshop presentation, reminds me of a moment in that most ‘80s of ‘90s movies, The Wedding Singer. Both that movie and this play have a great deal of fun with their over-the-top ‘80s style and references, though the play deals with the vagaries of small-town mall hairdressing rather than small-potatoes wedding performance.

The Wedding Singer, mostly fluff and sparkle, surprises with a bizarre, painful moment where the lead character has a rage-fueled existential meltdown in song. Though there’s no singing in Hot Cuts, it’s that feeling of existential menace that simmers constantly under the surface of the show, in an intriguing and uncomfortable way.

The premise of Hot Cuts seems primed for silliness. A George Michael-styled hairdresser, Mikhail (Andy Cheng), and his sharp-cheekboned, semi-goth assistant Anita (Rebecca Applebaum), see Linda (Naomi Skwarna), who runs the mall art gallery and has great hair, as their potential ticket out of their tiny town’s mall if they can use her bold new cut to win a regional competition. The competition might be fiercer within the small shop, though, as Anita and eventually even Mikhail feud with Romaine (William Ellis), a hair-whispering prodigy with absolutely no social skills and a tendency to shout disturbing threats at women.

The actors are all amusing, particularly Ellis, who plays Romaine with the ethereal look of Rocky Horror’s Riff Raff filtered through the deadpan, twitchy physicality of Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce. However, when they interact with each other, their constantly arch, spare and disconnected delivery has the effect of making every line sound portentous and laced with menace – and not just the inventively violent ones offered by Romaine.

The background music (Andrew Zuckerman), which occasionally roars to life with bubbly ‘80s hits, mostly quietly plays them in a slightly distorted version. This adds to the dark, brooding feeling. I wanted the show to either heighten the comedy or lean into the menace; right now, it’s in a bit of an in-between tonal space.

There are some weighty themes here, including dreams deferred, the restrictive expectations on women within the family, and fashion and drugs being used as an escape from a stifling existence. They mostly land, but a later theme of commercialism vs. the little guy seems very sudden, particularly in its use of the most aggressively weird of the hairdressers as the corporate shill. There’s an attempt to foreshadow it, but it still doesn’t quite work logistically.

One thing Hot Cuts has in spades is aesthetic; it makes delightful use of its bright and airy space, and the hair, makeup, and costumes (styling consultant Vanessa Fischer) are an awesome time capsule that quickly help define character and personality.

The only issue I had was that we spend so much time waiting to see Linda’s breakout cut during the mimed styling that, when she returns in the wig, it’s almost disappointing. In a future version, it would be great to incorporate some actual styling into the show (though that would probably require a larger budget), or to just permanently leave the mystery cut to our imagination.

As a workshop presentation, Hot Cuts has some solid style, but it might need a couple of adjustments; let’s say, a bit of layering and feathering.


Hot Cuts plays at The Toronto Media Arts Centre (32 Lisgar St., 3rd Floor).

Remaining Performances:

  • Sunday August 19th, 5:30pm – 6:30pm

SummerWorks tickets are now Pay What You Decide at $15, $25, or $35, whichever suits your budget. All tickets are general admission and there are no limits to any price level. Tickets are available at the performance venue (cash only), online, by calling 416-732-4116, and in person at the SummerWorks Central Box Office – located at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West), open August 9-19 from 12pm-8pm. Cash and credit accepted.

Several money-saving passes are available if you plan to see at least 4 shows.

Photo by Slater Manzo