As Pamela Bethel plays the first recording, I’m immediately hit with the nostalgia of the muffled, crackling quality of answering machine messages. In After the Beep, Bethel seamlessly weaves a story of friends, family, school, boyfriends, and wrong numbers with messages from the past interlaced with stories to contextualize them.
Bethel breezes past a couple technical difficulties with her affable penchant for storytelling. We hear the progression and then deterioration of a friendship, her mother’s deep concern over past-due library books, and even some “I love you’s” from a beau named Beau (and a few other suitors).
All kinds of relics of the past come through these messages: car phones, pagers, the brand new Blockbuster Video, and a candy girl at the movies. This is an epoch of teenagehood in the nineties from a completely unique perspective.
Bethel laughs along with us when she plays one of her own outgoing messages: a rendition of Stayin’ Alive changed to “stay on the phoooone.” Later, she shamefully winces with us as we all listen to a few messages left in racist accents that include homophobic comments. This isn’t a curated picture of her life; Bethel bares it all.
My favourite line of the production is when Bethel reminds us: “Memory is notoriously unreliable, but memorabilia is much sharper evidence.” This play is both. Recordings and then the anecdotes Bethel’s memory can provide. At one point, she even bravely breaks open her high school diary.
Technically this is a one woman show. But the answering machine brings to life a whole cast of characters. A very exuberant best friend, a cheeky boyfriend, a wrong number caller leaving increasingly sorrowful messages hoping for a call back. Even the answering machine is a character, making us laugh by cutting off messages mid-sentence with a loud beep.
At times, Bethel the narrator divests herself from Bethel the teenager. She refers to herself in the third person, as Perfect Pam. A nickname she was given by a frenemy. At other times Bethel is very much that teenager. She becomes visibly upset recalling how she felt when she had to tell her dad she had been caught shoplifting.
This isn’t a play in the traditional sense; this is Pamela Bethel’s memoir– at least the middle school and high school portion. Bethel wraps everything up neatly, aptly comparing her life now to her life then and explaining the “why” of this play.
I don’t buy it. At least for me, there is no real why. There’s no lesson. There’s just life. I left the theatre reminiscing about my own lost messages and feeling like I’ve known Perfect Pam for years. Go see this deeply original play.
This review is based on the Thursday July 4th preview performance of the production.
- After the Beep plays at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace. (30 Bridgman Ave.)
- Tickets are $13, including a $2 service charge. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes and discounts for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Festival Box Office at Scadding Court (275 Bathurst St.), and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Content Warnings: mature language; sexual content.
- This venue is barrier-free. Patrons who use wheelchairs or who cannot climb stairs are seated in the front row.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- The Toronto Fringe Festival is scent-free: please do not wear perfumes, colognes, or other strongly-scented products.
- Thursday July 4th, 10:00 pm
- Saturday July 6th, 3:00 pm
- Sunday July 7th, 7:45 pm
- Tuesday July 9th, 8:45 pm
- Wednesday July 10th, 6:00 pm
- Thursday July 11th, 2:15 pm
- Saturday July 13th, 6:15 pm
Photo of Pamela Bethel by Pamela Bethel