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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

(Women) On the Edge


When we come to Victoria, we always see if something is on at the Belfry Theatre, which has made a comfortable if worn theatre space out of an old church.  It seems that we've hit a period when theatre audiences want to be entertained, perhaps because of financial instability and undertainty around the world:  last spring when Veronica and I were in New York City, we couldn't find a single play that wasn't either a comedy or a musical, and we even checked off off Broadway and the NYTimes theatre reviews.  Nothing but upbeat stuff.  Regina's own Globe Theatre opted this year for lighter fare, and we opted not to subscribe.  But the Belfry is unafraid of ideas or uncomfortable feelings and they've never disappointed us.  This trip, we saw On the Edge, a new play by Michele Riml.

Susinn McFarlen plays three women, Simone the fashion addict, Jess the cop, and Marilyn the wife trying to clear some space in her life with a yoga class.  Each of these characters has a thirty-minute monologue whose words often imply the questions or demands of another presence.  McFarlen's acting is superb; you'd have to have your lines and your delivery down cold for a one-hander like this, but she goes even farther.  Each character has a different body language, a different approach to the space of the nearly empty theatre.  We can even watch Marilyn manage to get better and better at her yoga through classes we suspect go for three or four months; we can watch her relationship to her body change profoundly.

But the real star here is Riml's script.  I'll admit that I wasn't terribly sympathetic to Simone the fashion addict, whose monologue is her introduction of herself to a kind of "fashion-addict's anonymous," as she explained an upper-middle-class life of entertaining and socializing where she was a kind of mannequin for her husband's status.  I could certainly muster the feminist ire I couldn't quite give Carmen, though:  intellectually I pitied a woman whose identity was a matter of which elite salespeople she knew and which designers she wore.  Simone embodied consumerism at its worse, the kind of aesthetic error Alexander Nehemas writes about in Only a Promise of Happiness:  for this person, the aesthetic has nothing to do with what is original or daring or fresh or expressive of themselves, but only what is already prescribed.  Yet Simone admits that her husband had had enough of her simply showing up "in costume"--this designer for that event.  He too had tired of her lack of self, and when she didn't take the hint he simply abandoned her.  I think my distance from Simone is embodied in that word above:  "pity."  I pitied her inability to stand outside of her own framework for a millisecond, even when challenged to do so.  Nevertheless, I found Riml's critique to be incisive.

It was Jess the cop who really moved me.  Simone's body language was entirely elegant and self-possessed, even when she lacked self-possession.  Jess is the woman who's been taught to be uncomfortable with her body, to take on the mannerisms that serve as protective colouration.  She and a male newbie are getting ready to interrogate a woman whom they suspect of having committed a hit and run that has put a young boy's life in the balance.  We get to hear Jess's mind working and we can see that when it comes to figuring people out and dealing with evidence she's a crackerjack cop.  But she begins her monologue with the newbie with a highly inappropriate anti-woman joke and talks through her monologue about being disgusted by the porn she saw her male colleagues looking at during their breaks.  Her superior officer thanks her for dealing with this problem, but her colleagues take to calling her "mom."  That is, until she sleeps with a co-worker, when the term is now "slut."  The guys have to keep her in one of the simplistic, manageable categories they have historically assigned women to.  By the end of the monologue we can see that this misogyny has taken a toll on Jess's personal life, but it's something we can see her coming to terms with and deciding to change.  Unlike Simone's husband calling her to task, Jess's recognition is entirely personal.  Believe me, she's not getting any help, except for the fact that she has a daughter at home.  Come to think of it, maybe that's help enough.

If Jess made me profoundly sad, Marilyn made me cry.  I don't know whether this is part of Riml's plan, but with each monologue we seem to go more deeply into the character.  Simone is all surface; Jess is trying to deal with the way work has boxed her in and shaped her life.  Marilyn is dealing with a partner who is purposefully or inadvertently sabotaging every desire she has.  Marilyn's favourite word, particularly at the beginning, is "Sorry."  She arrives at a yoga class recommended for a problem she's having with one of her hips; she's late.  She apologizes to her instructor.  Her phone rings.  She apologizes again, but explains she's got to get it.  Her resposne to her husband implies his part of the dialogue.  How much is this class costing?  She needs to pick up his dry cleaning and to get him some razor blades.  Does the remember the dinner they're giving tonight?  It's clear that he resents the cost of this class, though he's willing to send her to get expensive wine for the clients he entertains.  Why does she need to do this?  She doesn't dare turn the phone off because that will shut off the GPS and he won't know where she is.  All the same, Jess keeps coming to class, becoming stronger, more flexible.  When encouraged to be in the present moment, to appreciate "now" she goes ballistic.  She hates now.  Now is her husband's demands, his devaluing of her.  Now hurts.  But at the end of the play, during the final meditative part of a yoga class, she meets a serene, older version of herself who is encouraging her to make a leap.  Over the edge.  But obviously that phrase means two things.  You can be pushed over the edge by misogynistic fellow workers or blood-sucking husbands.  But you can also choose to make a hopeful leap into the future.

 Are holidays always one day too long?  Yesterday, Victoria was remarkably windy, and while the natives were out walking their dogs (almost every one of them in a hoodie or a toque, admittedly), we felt buffeted and exhausted by trying to figure out what to do on a miserable day in an unfamiliar city.  We'd done the art gallery.  We'd done the museum, which I should have talked about in an earlier blog.  The unchanging part of the museum was slightly frustrating;  in fact, it hasn't changed an iota since we were first there about eight years ago.  This royal museum, at least, hasn't engaged with the possibilities of the twenty-first century.  But we saw an exhibition of prize-winning wildlife photography, some of them taken by photographers as young as ten.  These artists see the world with an engagement which may be one way of saving us from our apathy.  Nature is too beautiful for us to continue to destroy it.  The younger artists had sometimes followed their subjects for three or four days, looking for exactly the right conditions, the right  light, the right gesture to illuminate what they saw.  The wise old eye of a rhinoceros.  Unimaginable fish.  The beauty of an oil spill, which photographer Daniel Beltra said he attempted to capture on purpose, because if it was beautiful we wouldn't be afraid to talk about it.  (I wonder what Susan Sontag would say?)  A moment to look unfamiliar primates in the eye:  a tiny cream-coloured baby monkey huddled into itself to keep warm.  A gorilla looking at you appraisingly.  What do you have to tell him about his habitat?  About poaching?   A fox who had almost learned to trust the photographer:  wildness personified. 

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