“How old did you say you were anyway?”
A middle-aged white man (Derek Boyes) is sitting on a bed in a shabby, faraway hotel room with a brown girl (Miriam Fernandes) wearing only her underwear standing in front of him. It’s a disturbing image, but exactly how disturbing depends on the answer to that question the man is asking. Are we dealing with a child-sex tourist here?
We never get a clear answer in Soliciting Temptation, a new play by Erin Shields that toys with a variety of tones in what seem like multiple beginnings.
First, we get to watch the Man – no names for these characters in the program, thank you very much – ambling around the hotel room in a meticulously realistic vein, wiping sweat from his forehead, drinking bourbon and calling the front desk to complain about the air conditioner.
Then, a knock at the door and the Girl – again, unnamed – appears bathed in an eerie, otherworldly green light, wearing a very revealing sari and very childlike expression.
A few minutes later, however, another major shift in tone occurs as the hitherto silent Girl metamorphoses into a very angry adult, shouting at the Man about his illicit and illegal desires and promising to rain justice down upon him – perhaps in the form of the police, perhaps in the form of an angry pimp, or perhaps by telephoning his wife back in Canada.
Who is this girl-like woman (or vice-versa)? Given Shields’s earlier mythology-inspired works such as If We Were Birds and The Epic of Gilgamesh, I was expecting some sort of pint-sized goddess of vengeance. (There are also early references to the Man having decided not to sleep under a mosquito net, opening the door to the possibility that this is a mad malarial dream.)
From its creepy, unsettling and provocative start, however, Soliciting Temptation becomes another two-people-talking-in-a-room play, where you’re never sure why one or the other doesn’t just leave or shut up. The Girl turns out to be a university student from somewhere in the West (like the characters, the countries are left unnamed), and she’s on a poorly planned mission to entrap child-sex tourists in the East.
With this revelation, much of the tension evaporates in director Andrea Donaldson’s production. As the Man, Boyes – on loan to Tarragon Theatre from Soulpepper – plays to his strengths as an actor, alternating between distracted affability and pedantic condescension. As the Girl, Fernandes displays a remarkable ability to transform herself physically, but her character’s personality keeps morphing disorientingly as the two talk about themselves and debate pedophilia, sex work and “the appropriation of oppression.”
There’s something about the way they move from topic to topic that makes you think they are just speaking the conflicting thoughts in the playwright’s mind. How else to explain when the Man – a self-proclaimed fuddy-duddy who hates it when people say “stylist” instead of “hairdresser” – starts to rant about white, liberal guilt and “privilege”? (Knock, knock. Who’s there? The legacy of Bernard Shaw.)
There are twists. There are turns. An EpiPen is brandished and used. A resolution of sorts is reached.
The initial question that the Man asks the Girl is never answered, though – and that, oddly, leaves the main male character off the hook. I found it harder and harder to buy the situation, the deeper the play became cemented in realism. The acting is solid, but I never felt these characters really existed.
Shields has written some exciting scripts – from If We Were Birds, which used Ovid to talk about modern war crimes against women, to Montparnasse (written with Maev Beaty), an examination of female nudity set in 1920s Paris. These works both were born at the SummerWorks Festival, a curated indie summer festival with an essentially DIY ethos – create a play, put it on.
Soliciting Temptation is Shields’s first work to be developed at length through Tarragon Theatre’s established play development program – and it’s smaller and more conventional. Draw your own conclusions, but I sensed a more interesting, unwieldy play that had been tamed into yet another talky, tourable two-hander.
Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck