Tapestry Opera: Hook Up. Christopher Thornborrow (composer), Julie Tepperman (libretto), Richard Greenblatt (Direction). At Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace through until Feb. 9. See here for details.
Tapestry Opera took another bold step Thursday night, unveiling the taut and somewhat edgy musical Hook Up, a ninety-minute story centred around toxic on-campus date rape culture. Tapestry’s latest lab project, in the making for five years and the first commission by company artistic director Michael Mori, was given an auspicious, if muted reception at Theatre Passe Muraille’s Mainspace Theatre — auspicious, in that the audience showed its general approval for the work and the librettists’ attempts at confronting sexual assault, but muted, given the explicit character of the show’s second half and its sudden and demoralizing ending.
Librettist Julie Tepperman and director/dramaturge Richard Greenblatt could have taken any number of approaches with such an uncomfortably difficult but timely topic. One way would have been to make the work entirely issues-driven and conscientiously earnest. Another would have been to take the angry route, eviscerating fetid frat culture and its pervasive party-til-you-puke non-consensual-sex mentality — but, the world of the subterranean rapist doesn’t readily translate easily to the stage.
So instead, Tepperman and Greenblatt did something unexpected. They made us cringe with mostly unfunny teen-language comedy for 45 minutes, describing a party-hearty orientation day at a stereotypical first-year university. The libretto consciously takes the perspective of the three seventeen/eighteen-year-olds, assumes their language and consciousness, and allows the characters to grow quickly inside a sickeningly predictable world of soft-pedalled male language euphemisms for “partying responsibly.”
Tepperman’s libretto segued well, albeit uncomfortably, through to the lurid implications of the offstage sexual violence that leads to the musical’s introspective second half, all of which was sharply delivered with a good score by Chris Thornborrow. As a result, the work arrived at its inevitable conclusion with a musical/dramatic directness that described the issues without having to explain them. It might not have been everyone’s preferred way of dealing with such a sensitive topic — many will be quick to criticize how much was left out — but Hook Up does underscore all the issues at hand by placing them in sharp relief and with some moments of startling clarity.
What made it all work was lead character Emily Lukasik’s embodiment of the character Mindy from start to finish. Vulnerable and naïve opposite her friend Cindy, who was savvily portrayed by Alicia Ault, Lukasik drew us inside a reality entirely constructed out of her high school dreams of marital security and snuggles with her boyfriend Tyler, who was very realistically characterized by Nathan Carroll. Ault herself was excellent as Mindy’s seemingly innocuous schooler of university social ways and adventurous sexual behaviours, but meanwhile, she is also jealous of her friend’s time away from her, spent endlessly with Tyler. When her promiscuous persona plants the first doubts into Mindy that her relationship with Ty may not be going well, it all steadily unravels after that, leading to a grand malentendu and inevitable tragedy.
Alexis Gordon was the most versatile and easily played her range of assigned characters. She gave a moving and difficult testimony of Tyler’s friend Heather who tells her own survival story at the musical’s climactic scene, played a vapid orientation leader to perfection, and documented milestones of feminism’s history as a quietly frustrated university professor instructing a room of undergrads, who had only superficially memorized the required PowerPoint factoids while remaining blithely indifferent to the vibrancy of the very movement they were studying. Jeff Lillico rounded out the cast nicely with multiple characterizations, especially his portrayal of Mindy’s father, and a chilling half-face would-be rapist mug shot that totally gave me the creeps.
Musically well cast and sung throughout Thornborrow’s felicitous score, which made the right moves with all the right sounds for both piano (music director Jennifer Tung) and percussion (Greg Harrison), Hook Up combined contemporary dramatic intonations mimicking first-year undergraduates with serviceable musical theatre stock ideas. There were many fine compositional moments including the duet Text Alerts and Time-Out!, plus an enjoyable Texting/Instagram/Phoning montage that allowed Thornborrow’s natural gift for this kind of through-composed post-Rent era language to grow on the audience, and for us to gradually take the characters seriously, even if dramatically speaking, it took awhile.
Regardless, the cast was good throughout, and never missed a beat or inflection: they are strong singers born to the stage who were entirely natural in musical theatre speech-song. Most often, we were drawn to Lukasik and Ault who frequently stole the show with their BFF dynamic which comprised the central dramatic pivot around which the action would turn.
And while the program notes were correct in stating that “Hook Up raises questions of consent, shame, and power in the lives of young adults navigating uncharted waters” and that there was little beyond their social media instincts and Instagram accounts to guide them (parents are depicted as two-dimensionally outdated control freaks), one is left wondering at the end of the musical how date rape and sexual assault get stopped for good.
Here was the worst part about Hook Up: there is everything to suggest from what we saw that it will never stop, and that for me was the most indelible part of the show. We were left with no method, no growing awareness outside of two on-stage characters, no education and no reason to think any of the male campus entitlement culture is ever going away, whether it’s cavalier frat boy talk leading the “dudes” on to pursue anal intercourse with the girls (followed by “just kidding”— well, most of the audience knew he wasn’t kidding), or Tyler’s seeming unawareness that watching porn together with Mindy was normal, even if he was insensitive to her obvious discomfort with it.
We were led to believe, with some very fine video and stage effects by Montgomery Martin and a really strong set and costume design by Kelly Wolf, that first-year undergraduates are all a homogenized and stereotypically unaware group (if you teach undergraduates, you find out quickly they aren’t stereotypical at all in speech, thinking or life experiences). Nothing in the late-teenaged dialogue — it’s the usual wtf stuff — is nuanced in the first forty-five-minute exposition. Instead, all the dialogue felt keenly prescient of Mindy’s life eventually getting ruined.
And while the deliberately clunky dialogue between Mindy and Ty succeeded in demonstrating the awkwardness which teens, and probably most anyone, feel talking about the lines around consensual sex, there was a strong sense that a little less talk and more plot development might have done the trick to bring in more issues surrounding frat boy mentality and the hidden entitlements of (often) wealthy, young, upper-middle-class men who feel it’s their right to drug a drink because the girl just likely “wants it anyway.” The undercurrents of this repulsive side of hook-up culture were always there to be heard, even if not explicitly so.
The most revealing scene took place in the Feminism 101 class, which asked the question, “how come no guys take this class?” But a better question might be “how come the women in first year who take the class don’t take away the lessons they need?” Feminism was supposed to fight the war on the ground against sexual assault, and the #MeToo era of the past two decades has done that, but Hook Up managed to show that it still hasn’t been enough. This isn’t feminism’s fault, or even the implied fault of the characters, but it points to something larger that the musical steadfastly seemed to believe it wasn’t ready to explore, or perhaps felt it wasn’t artistically the time to do so.
Hook Up isn’t merely a university culture problem, it’s all of us who get violated, and, we all bear the cost. Hook Up shows us that it’s our problem too, but at the show’s end we only feel emptied and angered by it all.