Written prior to the #MeToo movement, Beautiful Man offers a prophetic message about gender stereotypes through role reversal.
Factory Theatre/Beautiful Man, written by Erin Shields, directed by Andrea Donaldson, Factory Mainspace, May 4 to May 26. Tickets available at factorytheatre.ca.
Celebrated Canadian playwright Erin Shields is radical, subversive, and profound. She won the 2011 Governor General’s Award for her searing depiction of rape and revenge in If We Were Birds when she was but a mere stripling, and lest we forget, her latest triumph is her revisionist take on John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost at Stratford last summer, one of the Festival’s most successful new play ventures ever (which was also nominated for a GG Award). In other words, when Shields pens a play, attention must be paid, and Beautiful Man, her devastating satire on gender role reversal, is, not surprisingly, radical, subversive and profound.
Andrea Donaldson, the director of Beautiful Man, calls Shields a prophet, because the play was written in 2015, prior to the #MeToo movement and the outing of abusive men in power. The play premiered at SummerWorks that year, and now enterprising Factory is giving a reworked Beautiful Man a timely airing. But be warned, it is not an easy sit-through. In Beautiful Man, Shields turns the tables on stereotypes, depicting men as the ones who are objectified, marginalized, and victims of violence.
Three women (Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen and Sofia Rodriguez) sit on stools facing the audience. They are dressed in finery for an evening out on the town, including the de rigueur stiletto heels (courtesy of costume designer Ming Wong). They are discussing a hit TV show geared to female sexual fantasies about men (Shields’ nod to the action-adventure flicks that routinely depict women in subservient positions). As they gleefully remember salacious details about the show, their mimicry of man-talk becomes more and more sexually graphic. They describe horrible things being done to men without so much as a blink of remorse. If one substitutes the word “pussy” for every time the women say “penis”, Shields’ satiric take on this gender role reversal becomes all the more hard edge.
Above the women is a box room where we find Beautiful Man (Jesse LaVercombe). He is there to mime the happenings described on the show, as well as uttering a few banal words from time to time. He begins dressed in an apron over his clothes, and ultimately ends up naked. Set designer Gillian Gallow has perfectly captured the bubble, so to speak, in which this beautiful man is placed — all at the service of women.
The supposed TV show is about a badass female cop looking for a serial killer who only tortures, mutilates and murders beautiful men. We assume the killer is a woman. The cop is obsessed with the killer to the point where it takes over her life, and we discover that she has forgotten her wedding anniversary. Apparently, her husband has slaved all day making the anniversary dinner. (Sound familiar?) The cop sits down to watch a favourite TV show, a fantasy drama about an Amazon Queen (and Richard Feren’s clever sound design is a rip-off of the iconic theme music of Game of Thrones). In turn, the Queen watches a puppet show, and it is in these fantasy elements, both Amazonian and puppet, that horrible and humiliating sexual abuse is inflicted on men.
The three women thoroughly enjoy recalling the events of the police drama. In fact, it makes them excited. It’s a real turn on. What Shields has done in her writing is a marvel. The tone is casual conversation — three friends discussing a favourite show – egging each other on to remember – yet describing brutality as an everyday matter. Taken together, forgetting an anniversary, or inflicting physical violence, are both acts of cruelty.
Shield’s coup de théâtre is yet to come. The women finish speaking, retreat to the shadows, and leave their stilettos on their stools, shining in the spotlight. At this point, Beautiful Man recites a brilliant monologue that every woman in the audience, no matter what age or ethnicity, will relate to. What Shields has done is include every doubt, every hope, every failing, every humiliation, every fear detailing what every woman experiences in the conduct of her life in relation to men — in short, how the rules of gender engagement dictate behaviour. That it is a man expressing this heartfelt inner truth makes the content all the more poignant. LaVercombe is an exceptionally talented actor and we believe every word he utters. The women engaging in man-talk may be outrageous fun, but the man revealing a woman’s secret life is utterly unsettling, particularly because it is interaction with men that sows the seeds of female uncertainty.
It’s not easy for the women to relate without really looking at each other, but director Donaldson has ensured that the pacing is fast, and that there is no lag in their dialogue. She does build that all-important excitement. Yet, Donaldson also has them do some strange body movements, but it is sometimes difficult to get a reading on what the physicality means, like Botting holding her hands out in front as if turning dials, or Rodriguez leaning on the stool, raising one leg up and down like a lever. Nonetheless, the trio do capture the enthusiasm of talking about something they love, and imparting that thrill to us, although, at times, Rodriguez needs to speak more loudly. All three women give strong performances with Nguyen being particularly impressive. I know that Beautiful Man is supposed to be passive, but I would have preferred a bit more physical action on his part in his mime sequences. What he enacts is sometimes a bit fuzzy.
All in all, Shields, Donaldson and the cast present a daring production. One hopes that men will take away how objectification of women is embedded in our lives through gender stereotypes, and must be rooted out. As for women, they must take a hard look at Beautiful Man’s monologue, and fight against male patronizing and condescension, not to mention the desire for male approval, as defining their own behaviour.