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Patrick Émmanuel Abellard, Laurent Pitre and Patrick Keeler in Gratitude.

  • Title: Gratitude
  • Written and directed by: Oren Safdie
  • Choreography by: Amy Blackmore
  • Starring: Michaela Di Cesare, Laurent Pitre, Patrick Keeler and Patrick Émmanuel Abellard
  • Performed at: Mainline Theatre in Montreal

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Sexual coercion abounds in the world premiere of Gratitude, a topical if all-too familiar look at high school lust and longing by Canadian-American-Israeli playwright Oren Safdie.

Fifteen-year-old Dariya (Michaela Di Cesare) has a crush on the class “stud” Drew (a charming and sleazy Patrick Keeler) and she’ll do anything to get his attention. What starts out as a seemingly innocent meeting in the abandoned boys’ showers soon becomes a complicated exchange of sexual favours with a high cost. After Dariya confesses her love for Drew, he insinuates that he’ll sleep with her (read: show her his gratitude) if she does him a favour. She agrees to do whatever he wants, even when that favour consists of sexual favours for his two best friends.

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The first recipient, Josh (Laurent Pitre), is a modern-day Romeo. He’s hopelessly in love with the idea of Dariya, and tries to connect with her romantically, even though it’s clear she just wants to get the job done. Ben (a strong, if under-utilized Patrick Émmanuel Abellard) is just interested in the sex.

When Dariya returns to Drew to tell him the deeds are done, he refuses to sleep with her. Enraged, she threatens blackmail: She’ll tell the school principal that Josh and Ben raped her, and she has the DNA evidence to prove it.

At this point I started to ask myself - why does Dariya want Drew so badly that she’s willing to put herself through this? This question lingered in my mind as the play continued, especially when it was revealed that this was her first time doing anything sexual.

The piece is choreographed by Amy Blackmore, the artistic and executive director of the St. Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival and Mainline Theatre. Safdie is a critically acclaimed playwright and screenwriter whose recent work includes plays such as Unseamly, a controversial look at sexual harassment in the garment industry, and Mr. Goldberg Goes to Tel Aviv, which the theatre company calls a “jaw-rattling ride through the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.”

Safdie has said the inspiration for this piece comes from his time at high school in the 1970s and 1980s. The sexual politics of the piece are firmly rooted there; in the explosive finale, it becomes resoundingly clear that Dariya will face the most violent consequences for all of the characters' actions.

The direction comes off with few hitches - the scenes are well-paced and funny, and Blackmore skillfully choreographs the many sexual situations the characters find themselves in (I did notice a fair amount of time was spent on the floor of a smelly boys’ shower, but the teenage heart wants what it wants). The show, set in Montreal, is right at home in the Mini-Main, a tiny black-box theatre that faces bustling St. Laurent Boulevard. Bruno-Pierre Houle’s set is both believable as an abandoned high school shower and strangely beautiful under the simple lights, with its tarnished metal pipes strung with gauzy shower curtains.

One would hope that Gratitude, with its focus on young male sexuality, might offer some insight into the current crisis of toxic masculinity. Unfortunately, this is where the play falls flat. While it is engaging and the acting is strong, it quickly becomes apparent that Dariya is the most under-written of all the characters. Di Cesare leads us through Dariya’s reckless actions with dedication, but any childish awkwardness Dariya might have at the beginning of the play evaporates as soon as she becomes sexual.

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Non-coercive consent doesn’t seem to exist in Gratitude: there is never a resounding yes, or an interaction where both parties are excited. Even the least abrasive male character, Josh, declares that he thinks all of Dariya’s “no’s mean yes.” I am all in favour of having female characters who, in Dariya’s own words are “allowed to make bad decisions,” but when those decisions feel under-motivated, one has to wonder: Is it adolescent lust driving this story? Or is the playwright using a young woman’s sexuality as a plot device in an increasingly violent narrative?

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