After a much talked about run in SummerWorks 2015, Erin Shields’ high-concept feminist comedy, Beautiful Man, closes Factory Theatre’s 49th season. This piece flips the script on misogynistic tropes in mainstream media by depicting a matriarchal world where it is men who are the victims of objectification and fetishized violence.
Three confident, fashionably dressed women—representations of female privilege—(portrayed hilariously by Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen, and Sofía Rodríguez) discuss a movie they’ve just seen, a movie about a cop—she’s a haunted, hardened professional hunting a female serial killer who preys on young, beautiful men. Within the movie, this cop is watching a television series: a historically “accurate” period drama (with dragons and witches) that consistently victimizes its male characters. There is also a behind-the-scenes sex scandal with a highly respected female director who has been grooming her young, naïve male interns.
And on it goes, each new layer of male victimization becoming increasingly more graphic, obscene and absurd.
On display behind them is the beautiful man, gradually shedding layers of clothing, portraying each sexy male character that is needed to advance a powerful woman’s story within a story, within a story, within a story. Jesse LaVercombe creates some delightfully campy tableaux of male victimization, though it is in this play’s second half that he really shines. (More on that later.)
Conceptually, this is tight, relevant and funny, but within ten minutes I got it and my attention began to wander as I realized there aren’t any real stakes here. The beautiful man on display behind them: he’s dehumanized eye candy for the female gaze, but I was never worried about him. He’s completely removed and protected from the lecherous women below. If they had invaded his space and presented a genuine threat, it might have resonated more with me.
Gillian Gallow’s striking forced perspective set gives an impression of both a stage and a movie screen and is surprisingly dynamic and expressive under Jason Hand’s colourful, constantly shifting light. Director Andrea Donaldson creates some very bold and funny visuals with it, but it doesn’t take long for all of this to feel tiresome: three women on stools reciting, a safe pantomime of fetishized objectification in the background, and no real drama happening between any of them.
A jarring tonal shift occurs in the second half where our beautiful man now plays a women, relating a typically fraught day in her life. Taking it’s time to achieve a haunting cumulative effect, this part of the show is more grounded in our present reality. The woman takes us with her as she contends with a harsh interior voice of self-judgement, tolerates mansplainers and is almost paralyzed by over-thinking and self-doubt as she encounters a group of men gathered on a dark street corner. While far more emotionally compelling, this coda feels incongruous as a follow-up to the satirical and stylized presentation that lead up to it.
Beautiful Man wears its intensions proudly on its sleeve. There is no ambiguity or ambivalence or potential for misinterpretation. It knows its point and stays on it.
Beautiful Man runs May 4 to May 26, 2019
at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street)
see website for info and tickets