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Noah Reid, Anna Hardwick and Karen Knox in A Woman Is a Secret.

John Gundy

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
A Woman Is a Secret
Written by
John Patrick Shanley
Directed by
Andrew Shaver
Actors
Katie Swift, Karen Knox, Martha Burns
Company
Rip Jaw Productions, the Storefront Theatre, SideMart Theatrical Grocery
Venue
The Theatre Centre
Runs Until
Sunday, April 05, 2015

A Woman Is a Secret is a new evening of short John Patrick Shanley plays – and if the title makes you raise an eyebrow, then you might want to keep all your facial features far away. You're too skeptical a soul for this incurable romantic and his throwback sexual politics.

You've heard, no doubt, of Manic Pixie Dream Girls – those free-spirited, fantastical female characters who pop up in plays and movies primarily to teach a sullen, soulful male character how to live, how to really live.

Well, for the six playlets that comprise A Woman Is a Secret, Shanley – an Oscar-winner for his Moonstruck script; a Tony-winner for Doubt – has generated a gaggle of such Girls. Not only is there a Tennessee psychic who scares a poor, young musician into growing up, but there's a Polish model who shocks a multimillionaire sad sack out of his materialistic muddle. "Men love an inscrutable piece of ass," says the latter, before imploring everyone to listen to the ocean.

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And Shanley has even penned a pair of scenes here in which the female characters are outright fantasies, full stop. The first two women to appear on stage (Karen Knox and Anna Hardwick) exist only in the daydream of a cranky lawyer (Noah Reid) having trouble connecting with his life; while the last woman to appear on stage is actually a pixie (Martha Burns) – well, a banshee to be very fairy-specific – who flies into the bedroom of a flu-ridden schoolteacher (Tony Nappo).

That leaves two short playlets in A Woman Is a Secret that follow a different rhythm. They're the most engaging of the evening, but perhaps the most troubling in how they express Shanley's views on male-female relationships.

The Bronx-raised Shanley has become the surprise patron saint of Toronto indie theatre of late. His early works Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (1983), Savage in Limbo (1984) and The Dreamer Examines His Pillow (1985) have all been performed in studios, bars and basements around town by entrepreneurial performers in recent years – while Where's My Money? (2001) has had two intimate productions in five years.

And now it's several indie companies that have banded together for this world premiere – Rip Jaw Productions, the Storefront Theatre and SideMart Theatrical Grocery. It's certainly a coup: Shanley's most recent full-length play, Outside Mullingar, opened straight on Broadway.

Shanley's writing, at its best, does strike a chord deep within – and the ex-Marine's rough, romantic streak that has won over audiences for three decades is in full evidence here. "A waterfall is a river broken in two," is one line that stuck with me from the scene in a Tennessee bar, where Katie Swift is a standout as a reluctant psychic, drawling, "The world is full of bad company."

The female characters may be fantasies, but that doesn't mean they can't be fun to watch (and, no doubt, to perform): Knox makes Shanley's wisdom-spouting model a very funny creation, while Burns brings an element of true feeling and great comic invention to the banshee. It's the short, shallowness of the scenes they are in – and the repetitiveness of the theme – that grows tiring.

The first exception is "Tiny Tragedy," a seductive scene that begins as a noir parody – with a menacing bartender named Hank (the versatile Trent Pardy) and a flirtatious femme fatale named Sparkle (an electric Molly Flood) – and turns into a dark fable about a male sexual predator and his willing female victim.

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"Last Night in the Garden I Saw You," meanwhile, is a mostly charming little scene about a barely employed poet named Arthur (the very funny Anand Rajaram) confronting his married ex, Judy (Hardwick); here, at least, the man and woman are equally whimsical and seem like a potential match.

It's a little disturbing, however, that Judy – like Sparkle in "Tiny Tragedy" – also expresses a strong sexual desire to be murdered.

It's a particularly bizarre recurring note given that Shanley was sued for $5-million just a few years ago by an ex-lover, an actress three decades his junior, who claimed that he took rough sex too far – and that she feared he wanted to kill her during intercourse. To be absolutely clear, that suit against Shanley was dismissed.

But at a time when the cultural conversation swings between the alleged assaults of Jian Ghomeshi on one hand and the female-directed S&M fantasy Fifty Shades of Grey on the other, an evening by a male playwright where all the female characters are either fantasies or have sexual death wishes could at the very least use a more interrogative, searching production. Instead, director Andrew Shaver goes for a Midsummer Night's Dream-like feel, bookending the evening with the trite song You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You.

Matthew Barber sings that, and other songs, gorgeously, between the scenes – and he's slowly joined by a band of male characters after they play their scenes. Shaver's production is certainly smooth – and the acting is often sharp, with a nice mix of newcomers and veterans.

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