Toronto’s Factory Theatre closes its season with Erin Shields’ searingly feminist satirical play
On Wednesday night, a few friends and I watched a popular sci-fi movie in celebration of its 10th anniversary. Though the film had positive aspects, we were struck by how terribly it treated the few women on screen; they seemed to be there almost solely either to give birth to more important characters, undress for viewer enjoyment, or die in horribly violent ways to create pain for the male protagonists. Erin Shields’ Beautiful Man, the last show of Factory Theatre’s 49th season, is a searingly feminist reaction against the long-standing male gaze in media, which tends to reduce women to objects, or a means to an end.
Directed by Andrea Donaldson, three women (the very talented Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen, and Sofía Rodríguez) sit on stools and dreamily recount the half-remembered plot of a show within a show within a show within a show, a Matryoshka doll of media where each nesting piece turns a genre’s set of clichés on its head by reversing the traditionally male and female roles.
There’s the complex and tortured female detective with her nameless, under-appreciated boyfriend; the ball-crushing Amazons of a high fantasy show introduced with a theme that is just this side of legally distinct from Game of Thrones (by sound designer Richard Feren), a Rome-style historical drama of trashy political intrigue, and a caveman-themed Punch and Judy-type puppet show featuring comical spousal violence.
In the back, trapped in a raised sterile white room designed by Gillian Gallow that resembles an observation lab, the Beautiful Man (Jesse LaVercombe) brings his ever-more degrading roles in these shows to life. Largely prevented from speaking more than a simple sentence or groan, he is clearly there solely for titillation and consumption. He gradually strips bare as the media-induced fantasies get increasingly sexual and violent, depositing each piece of clothing out the set’s back door.
Shields has a strong and enjoyable idea here, and it is both horrifying and very, very funny, both in the inconsistencies between the women’s memories, and the way they present the role reversal – in their world, a matter of course, like the opposite is in ours – in such a lascivious, barely-restrained manner. They excuse their proclivities in ways that seem very familiar, such as an insistence that instances of sexism and racism are just there for historical accuracy, even in the “history” of completely fictional countries.
While the three women are mildly distinct, most characterization is found in their description of their on-screen idols. The actresses, largely remaining rooted in place, are instead focused on the timing of the rapid-fire recounting that leads to the humour. They have mostly perfected this, rarely breaking the ever-intensifying flow.
The idea is strong, and the layers give it complexity; however, it’s hard to ignore that the first hour essentially presents a single concept. Because it’s all recounting, it can get a little repetitive, even when one realizes that this media overload is the point. It is also occasionally inconsistent; sometimes the gender and race-based clichés are entirely reversed, and sometimes they’re not, which can momentarily cause ideological whiplash.
Just when the play threatens to become repetitive in the extreme, it presents the audience with a sharp right turn into a contrasting mode. While this segment has similar intent – flipping the gender script to get us to think more clearly about how women are treated, this time in real life – it feels a bit disconnected. The protracted ending will likely seem painfully, frustratingly familiar to many women’s experience of attempting to work and socialize in a deeply unfair world, and it’s very satisfying to hear one’s experience encapsulated and confirmed in such a clear and unflinching manner.
Again, the length of this section is designed to show the sheer weight of daily and life-long experiences of aggressions against women, both macro and micro. However, as it went on, with dim lighting and momentum-halting pauses between commentary, the manic energy of the earlier part seemed to dissipate. Even the eager, packed opening night audience started shifting and sighing; whether it was from pained recognition or from boredom was unclear.
Despite some struggles with the form of the piece, Shields is a very talented, intelligent, and funny writer with a powerful message. I hope her show gets a wide audience, and those who watch it either feel heard, understand that we can certainly do better, or both. But, if not…at least they’ll get to see some beautiful skin.
- Beautiful Man plays at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst St) until May 26th, 2019.
- Show times are Tuesday-Saturday at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm
- Tickets are $25-50 and can be purchased online, by calling 416-504-9971, or at the Theatre Box Office.
- This play contains mature themes, strong language, and nudity.
Photo of Mayko Nguyen, Ashley Botting, Sofía Rodríguez, and Jesse LaVercombe by Joseph Michael Photography