We are living in an age of consent. That is to say, in our secular society, the open-minded among us rarely look to abstract or religious definitions of right or wrong when judging an activity, but instead ask: Did the people involved agree to this? Did they make the choice?
Three new shows at the SummerWorks Festival in Toronto interrogate that ideology and explore the limits of consent – and two of them, at least, are extremely troubling in what they suggest about who is really in control when we choose.
Anton Piatigorsky's Breath in Between begins with a simple, chilling and sadly not at all far-fetched premise: Roger (Paul Fauteux) posts an ad on the Internet looking for someone to kill. Two people – Maxim and Laura – answer it, come to his basement and are willingly murdered. Or is that an oxymoron? Perhaps what takes place is a pair of assisted suicides.
Many plays arrive onstage with labels such as "dark" and "challenging," but Piatigorsky's extraordinary piece of writing heads into genuinely tough territory – as theatre must in a world where Luka Rocco Magnotta is a household name and snuff videos go viral. It doesn't feel gratuitous, but necessary.
Breath in Between focuses less on the killings than on the aftermath of them – and how they affect the withdrawn Roger's romantic relationship with a twisted woman named Amy (the always impressive Amy Rutherford).
When Amy learns of Roger's Internet-assisted killings, she doesn't report him to the police – instead, she becomes jealous of the intimacy her lover had with his two victims.
Amy coerces a reluctant Roger to engage in role play (using two shocking masks designed by Richard Feren) in an attempt to bridge the breath-sized gap between the two that even sex can't fully erase. ("I think when I shouldn't," Roger says in one of his statements that makes him uncomfortably relatable. "It's an unforgivable thing.")
Piatigorsky's play is a primarily philosophical piece about human connection that digs deep into the crevices of our morally relativistic society. One provocative question it asks: Is a world where nothing is sacred the same as one where everything is sacred?
In one bizarre turn in the plot, Roger is haunted, perhaps possessed, by Laura, the second person he killed; while he may have held her life in his hands for an instant, she now exerts a power over him for the rest of his days.
Who is really in control when a woman says to a man: Tell me what to do, tell me what you want? In Maybe If You Choreograph Me You Will Feel Better, the Lebanese dancer and performance artist Tania El Khoury explores that most private of questions in public with a single male participant at a time.
Here is what happened to me; results may vary. Up in a room in the Gladstone Hotel, I listened to a recorded voice that asked me to look out the window and try to spot El Khoury on Queen Street below.
After I had, I was instructed to give the woman in headphones below a name and answer a multiple-choice quiz that determined how she would execute a series of movements among unsuspecting passersby. Should she walk slowly and romantically, or with steady and with purpose? Should she have a crying fit, or fly off the handle into a rage?
This intimate performance about gender expectations has an added twist: There's a female spectator too – watching out the window and listening to my instructions from the room next door. I forgot she was there, but ran into her afterward and felt exposed. I realized I speak differently to a woman alone than I do with another woman present.
The question that really stymied me in El Khoury's piece had to do with how she should dress. There were two photos laid on a table – one of a fierce-looking female Palestinian militant, the other of Queen Rania of Jordan. I won't tell you what I chose.
In France, or the Niqab, playwright Sean Dixon explores the perennially thorny issue of what women wear (and men tell them to wear or not to wear) – and he does it in the unlikely form of a farce.
Shaw Festival veteran Charlotte Gowdy plays a French lawyer named Tabatha, who ends up defending a woman fined for wearing a niqab after president Nicolas Sarkozy's government banned the garment – what he called "a sign of debasement and subservience."
As part of her attempt to understand her client's perspective, Tabatha agrees to forgo her usual pencil skirts and stilettos and don the niqab for one business day. Cue a silent scene set to Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe where she tries on different frilly undergarments in front of us without emerging from beneath – a kind of burqa burlesque.
Despite the production being a bit of a shambles, I kept wanting to like the show for its audacity. In the end, however, I realized that Dixon – who was inspired by a Globe and Mail column by Tabatha Southey – is approaching the issue only from a single angle.
That governments should not make wardrobe choices for adult women may be a good argument – but a column and a play can do different things. Works like Breath in Between and Maybe If You Choreograph Me You Will Feel Better go beyond an opinion and shift the ground beneath you. They make you second-guess the certainties of the age of consent.
Four other standouts at SummerWorks
After six days of SummerWorks, here are four shows that have stood out.
Director Mitchell Cushman's production of this dark, violent and fantastical rhyming play by Ireland's Mark O'Rowe made me squirm, but held me firm. Three intense intertwining monologues staged on a tiny gangplank: A help-hotline employee fights off a lesbian gang as she tries to stop a woman from having a late-term abortion; a unlucky-in-love young woman is saved from death by an otherworldly creature; and a serial killer who sold his soul to the devil to become a singing sensation goes on a rampage. In the latter role, Adam Wilson gives a must-see performance – if you can nab a ticket.
It moves slowly – really slowly – but Erin Brandenburg's music-filled play about Mennonite migrant workers waiting for a storm eventually gets you on its wavelength. Andrew Penner (Sunparlour Players) composed the slow-burn score, which is played on a bunch of makeshift "junkstruments" that double as farm machinery. ("I fell in love with a Mennonite/ She makes love all right," goes one memorable lyric.) Among the unassuming mumblecore performances, David Tompa's portrayal of a young, quiet migrant who can't make ends meet any more stands out. Canada has a strong history of farm plays and alt-country music – here's a nice pairing of the two.
Extinction Song and Pieta
Two sobering solo takes on alcoholism from here and abroad. Set in Winnipeg around the Canadian Centennial, Extinction Song – written and directed by Siminovitch Prize nominee Ron Jenkins – concerns an imaginative boy with a drunken Mountie dad; his awful experience one snowy day in a grocery-store parking lot will wipe away any nostalgia you might have for stubby bottles of 50. Meanwhile, Pieta – by Denmark's Astrid Saalbach – introduces us to a divorced mother who wakes up hung over in a hotel room – with a dead body. Ron Pederson and Tamsin Kelsey each give initially comic performances that take some getting used to, but conclude in powerful places.