- Title: Beautiful Man
- Written by: Erin Shields
- Director: Andrea Donaldson
- Actors: Ashley Botting, Jesse LaVercombe, Mayko Nguyen, Sofia Rodriguez
- Company: Factory Theatre
- Venue: Factory Theatre
- City: Toronto
- Year: Runs to May 26
Erin Shields, whose latest, layered work, Beautiful Man, is now stripteasing at Toronto’s Factory Theatre, is a playwright whose best work is often in reaction to other artists’ work, and to itself.
Thematically, the Hamilton-born writer, increasingly major in Canadian theatre, returns time and time again to re-envisioning classics through the lens of modern gender politics, while simultaneously questioning whether gender politics have actually changed all that much over time.
If We Were Birds, which won the Governor-General’s Award for Drama in 2011, retold the violent myth of Procne and Philomena from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, while incorporating recent real-world examples of atrocities against women.
Paradise Lost, which premiered at the Stratford Festival last summer and has forthcoming productions lined up in Ottawa and Montreal, put a female Satan at the centre of John Milton’s epic poem, and then made the audience question whether that was actually a feminist act at all.
With Beautiful Man, Shields wrestles with pop culture instead of the classics – at first, anyway.
Three women, played by Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen (who is note-perfect throughout) and Sofia Rodriguez, sit on stools and discuss, or perhaps invent, a favourite movie of theirs involving a brooding female detective who investigates the serial killer of beautiful young men. The cop in question comes home late from a murder scene to a boyfriend in an apron who has made an anniversary dinner, now burnt in the oven.
You quickly see the game being played here – clichés that somehow still have currency are flipped and reversed to reveal their absurd sexism.
It gets more meta, however. Within that movie described by the three women, the protagonist sits down to watch a television show that is much like the early seasons of Game of Thrones, if male extras were constantly in the nude rather than female ones. The three women become more lascivious recapping this show now, as they debate why a male torture victim is devoid of pubic hair.
Then, within that television show within that film, a violent queen sits down to watch an old play about female leadership in ancient times – and so it goes, stories nested within stories, forms within forms.
Behind the women and their weird water-cooler chatter, in an elevated white box (the eye-catching design is Gillian Gallow’s), the actor Jesse LaVercombe gives us glimpses of the male characters that populate all these worlds – the cop’s “smoking hot” boyfriend; the wounded slave selected to inseminate a fantasy queen; the boy from ancient times with his tongue cut out (shades of If We Were Birds).
His cameos are sometimes funny, sometimes poignant and, if LaVercombe’s slow-motion disrobing is exploitative, that is surely the point.
In an earlier version at the SummerWorks Festival in 2015, Beautiful Man seemed a well-timed, quick-and-dirty poke at the celebrated Difficult Men era of prestige television, written in a detached, presentational style of theatre inspired by work by Martin Crimp (a British playwright whose work Shields has performed in as an actor) and Olivier Choinière (who, like Shields, is based out of Montreal).
The pop-culture pendulum has swung since then, however – and even Game of Thrones, now reaching its series finale, has revised itself from its original “tits and dragons” iteration to, debatably, dabble in fantasy feminism. (Or so I have read in Glamour; I failed to get interested in Game of Thrones.)
Now, revised and expanded, Beautiful Man can almost seem a parody of recent attempts to make reactionary genres of entertainment more “woke” by switching the gender of protagonists. (As if one Captain Marvel makes up for three Iron Mans, or having Julius Caesar and Cassius played by women does anything more than dilute problems with the dominance of Shakespeare.)
It’s a more complicated, less-clear piece. You can see the moments where the old version of the play and new version are arguing with themselves, which only makes it feel even more like a staged piece of cultural criticism than a play – though Shields and director Andrea Donaldson seem content with that.
Still, it is curious that Beautiful Man, for all its feminist impulses, features three female characters only barely distinguished in writing and direction. It’s likewise curious that the actors’ gyrations around the stools become so sexual, their talk so titillatingly pornographic. Is this a demonstration of the impossibility of flipping the male gaze without changing underlying root structures?
The big surprise for those who saw the play in 2015: In the middle of what seems to be the curtain call, LaVercombe comes forward to, in the first person, speak about a female lawyer’s increasingly depressing encounters with men during a night out at a bar.
This entirely new, too-true-to-life section has a repetitive rhythm and takes a play that once seemed a feisty cultural counterjab and ends it on a defeatist note. The restlessness of Beautiful Man may leave you uneasy, but it resonates with our times.