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Mouthpiece is entertaining and unique on the politics of women’s voices

Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava star in Mouthpiece and Quiver.

Joel Clifton

Mouthpiece

Created and performed by Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken
Directed and composed by Amy Nostbakken
At Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto
Four stars

Quiver

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Written and performed by Anna Chatterton
Directed by Andrea Donaldson
At Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto
Two stars

If the Olympics had an event for synchronized swimming minus the pool, Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken would be contenders for a gold medal.

Mouthpiece is a new two-woman routine about mothers and daughters by this pair of Toronto-based performers, known as the Quote Unquote Collective.

They perform it in white, one-piece bathing suits, with the utmost precision and artistry – but there's only an empty bathtub on stage with them. And yet there's nothing dry about the show.

Mouthpiece's premise is simple: Cassandra's mother has died – and she now has 24 hours to select outfits for herself and her mother's corpse, pick out a casket and flowers, and write a eulogy.

Even though Cassandra is a writer, it's the speech that's causing her the most trouble. In the midst of her grief, she has lost her voice – both literally, it seems, and figuratively. Her struggle: How can you boil down the life of a mother into a eulogy without falling back on cultural clichés about women?

It's the form of Mouthpiece that is trickier to describe – and synchronized swimming doesn't entirely do it justice. Cassandra's journey toward speaking at the funeral is told through clowning and choral work, movement and monologue, all of which find ways to echo or explore the show's themes about the politics of how to talk about women, and how women talk.

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Sadava and Nostbakken – one short, the other tall – both play Cassandra at the same time. Sometimes the two women synch up, perfectly, in body and voice; more often, they move and speak in harmony or counterpoint, a single woman's mind doing battle with itself and the wider patriarchal culture.

Cassandra's mother's voice and other women's voices interject from time to time. Indeed, though the show is firmly rooted in today, and in Toronto (one scene takes place in the bathroom at a famous bar on Dundas West), the performers seem to be channelling 70 years of postwar Western pop culture and propaganda – from sexist advertising slogans to feminist mantras, with cameo appearances by Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana along the way.

"I never saw my mother eat a French fry," Cassandra says, in one of the show's stiller moments – mourning how her mother limited her life, as much as the outside limit of her mother's life. But it's not long before she's wondering why she eats French fries herself – and, more particularly, why she wants to be seen as a woman who eats French fries (and drinks whisky, and makes crude jokes). Is this her true voice – or is it as tied to the dominant culture as her mother?

From vocal fry to upspeak, women's voices are intensely politicized. As performers, Sadava and Nostbakken – fabulous physical actors, who pull off some incredible feats here – deconstruct it all with every breath they take and every move they make. (The movement is by Orian Michaeli; Nostbakken composed the frequent musical interludes.)

If this sounds academic, I can only tell you that, as feminist fantasias go, this one is extremely entertaining. In a series of voice mails left for Cassandra, for instance, Sadava and Nostbakken exaggerate the cadences and clichés of women from different generations to great comic effect. Perhaps the highest compliment I can say about Mouthpiece is that it's a unique show, hard to reduce.

And now to reduce it: In synchronized-swimming terms, it would get 9 out of 10 for technical merit, 9.5 for artistic impression. This rounds up to four stars in theatre terms according to official interdisciplinary conversion charts, I gather.

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Mouthpiece goes on in the new year to the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary and the PuSh Festival in Vancouver. It's currently being presented at Buddies in Bad Times by the feminist company Nightwood Theatre, along with another one-act piece called Quiver, by Anna Chatterton.

You can buy tickets to them separately or as a double-bill. Quiver doesn't really benefit from the juxtaposition with Mouthpiece – though it also explores the relationship between a mother and her two daughters.

When 16-year-old Bea gets together with her mother Sheila's 40-year-old ex-boyfriend, Daniel, the family falls apart. Fourteen-year-old Maddy is left to fend for herself – retreating further and further into a world informed by the comic books she reads about a female superhero with a bow and arrow.

Quiver, a subdued take on what could be a sensational subject, is high-concept in presentation. Chatterton performs the whole thing from behind a microphone, a laptop to her right, a music stand to her left. She alters her voice electronically to inhabit the different characters – and controls all the other sound and lighting effects.

To be stage manager and star of a radio show at once, as smoothly as this, I'm sure involves a lot of hard work and co-ordination on Chatterton's part. The problem is that this form is not an entertaining or elucidating one.

It doesn't help that the story Chatterton tells is not structured for dramatic effect – the conflict comes right at the start, then the characters spend most of their time in isolation before reuniting a little too neatly at the end. It has the texture of a short story – and a few live vocal loops are the only really theatrical elements in what is otherwise a very static monologue, accompanied by the sound of one hand clicking. This wheel didn't need to be reinvented.

Mouthpiece and Quiver continue in Toronto to Nov. 6 (buddiesinbadtimes.com).

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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