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Review: Asking For It candidly explores consent in the wake of the Ghomeshi scandal

Christine Horne in Asking For It.

Jeremy Mimnagh

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Asking For It
Written by
Ellie Moon
Genre
Play
Actors
Ellie Moon, Christine Horne, Steven McCarthy and Jaa Smith-Johnson
Company
Crow’s Theatre with Nightwood Theatre and Necessary Angel
Venue
Crow’s Theatre
City
Toronto
Year
2017
Runs Until
Saturday, October 21, 2017

Around the time that Jian Ghomeshi was fired from the CBC and accusations of sexual assault began to swirl around the radio host, playwright and actress Ellie Moon was living in England and seeing a guy who owned a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan, "This is what a feminist looks like."

One night, during sex, that guy – who she calls Jack in her new play Asking For It – put his forearm over her neck and choked her. She's not sure what to call what happened in that moment. The two are still friends.

Asking For It, which is at Crow's Theatre this month in a co-production with Nightwood Theatre and Necessary Angel, follows Moon on a journey to try to understand this private incident in the light of the public scandal.

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It's a documentary play based on transcripts, but a very personal one where her investigation grows out naturally from her life as a young artist.

She talks to friends at bars, actors on a film set and a hairstylist.

While this approach to the subject matter has its drawbacks, it also allows for unusually candid and intimate conversations to be presented on a stage.

With Moon playing herself in a four-actor production and introducing each new interview with direct address, there's almost a Carrie Bradshaw feel to the proceedings.

Moon seems most interested, or at least seems to think an audience would be most interested, in the conversations she had that veered into grey zones when it comes to consent – a taboo idea in and of itself. An interview with a woman who is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who finds the #IBelieveWomen feminism reductive is startling.

"I just don't know when protecting women ends and infantilizing women begins," she says.

Moon's other female interview subjects range from her 16-year-old sister (on the subject of BDSM) to an old friend from community theatre who is now working as a stripper (and who is fascinated by how many men go to strip clubs to say no to women).

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Christine Horne, in a wonderful natural and unadorned performance, plays all the girls and women, while two male actors – Steven McCarthy and Jaa Smith-Johnson – play all the men that Moon talked with. It's an interesting contrast – they make short, staccato appearances that feel like cameos, while Horne has the monologues and long scenes.

This is just an expression of the reality Moon found when broaching the subject of consent with friends and strangers. While women seem eager to talk about the times men they were with crossed a line and the difficulties they've had expressing their discomfort, it was harder for the playwright to find men willing to talk unguardedly, even with the promise of anonymity.

What she finds is a wide gap – between strident men such as a 27-year-old police officer who calls himself a "guy who argues with feminists" and men who say what they think she wants to hear in conversations she's deemed too boringly political correct to stage.

A fascinating scene comes when Moon talks to just such a sensitive male friend – and, after he's left the bar, a female friend tells her of the time she slept in a bed next to him and woke up to him physically forcing himself upon her. Moon calls this rape; her friend says she's never thought of it as anything other than "awkward."

What did the guy in question think happened? Asking For It is, in a way, a dramatization of the frustrating limits of the conversation that was opened up by the Ghomeshi affair. Women spoke out; men clammed up. You see a similar thing happening with the case of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

In its own way, Asking For It demonstrates the need for drama to tackle certain corners of modern life, the places fiction can reach that documentary can't.

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The strength of Moon's piece, however, is that it's always aware of when it's hitting walls. A couple of scenes in which men try to seduce the playwright – one is successful, one is not – are interesting in that they allow us to ponder the distinction between seduction and coercion, but also because they extend the concept of consent to the form of documentary theatre. Did these scenes really happen while Moon was recording the audio on her smartphone?

Brendan Healy's direction is artful: The four actors begin by sitting around a table in front of scripts and microphones, like four radio hosts competing to be the next host of Q. Later, Healy plays gently with these conventions, but generally keeps us listening, the amplified sound creating the intimacy of a podcast. I felt the whole thing could have been edited more tightly, but then I feel that way about most podcasts as well.

Asking For It continues to Oct. 21 (nightwoodtheatre.net)

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