Emotional Labour, playing at Toronto Fringe Festival, takes its name from a term that, depending on your specific life experience and attitude, will cause either weary recognition or prickly indignation. This show’s core theme of toxic masculinity is also a divisive topic. Braving the fiery elements of our current social climate, the writing/performing team of Jess Beaulieu and Luis Fernandes offer up familiar relationship situations with some biting insight.
It opens with a decidedly sketch comedy feel. Some fast and furious comedy introduces us to our modern couple, Dan (Fernandes) and Mel (Beaulieu), who have hit a rough patch. As Dan rants up a storm about his horrible day, we begin to see the unhealthy depths of their dynamic. He’s cluelessly inconsiderate—forgetting date nights and failing to meet domestic responsibilities— and she is perhaps a little too accommodating. We realize the weight of his anger isn’t the only burden she carries; the very structural integrity of their relationship is in her exhausted hands.
That sketch comedy framing doesn’t last long; the emotional weight of Dan and Mel’s situation quickly becomes real to us. We get brief, telling glimpses into Mel and Dan’s supporting relationships too, where we see this harmful gender dynamic play out across generations. Mel tries to connect to a father who barely listens to her and who’s knowledge of her life hasn’t moved beyond her high-school boyfriend. Dan visits his mother and accepts her loving attention without bothering to acknowledge her own quite obvious hardships. These scenarios are genuinely funny, but the humour hurts a little, sometimes a lot.
Both Luis and Beaulieu deliver finely tuned, nuanced depictions that transcend even the most cliched set-ups. Again, many scenes open like fast-paced sketches with their standard broad-stroke riffing, but they never stay on this surface where easy gags can be played without consequence. Each scene eventually reveals something more sticky, nuanced and truthful. Even the most obnoxious character, Dan’s blatantly misogynistic best friend Joe, is eventually given the tiniest glimmer of human vulnerability.
Emotional Labour does a fine job of depicting just how much psychic space men can take up in women’s lives without offering the same space in their own. This is situational comedy with rich, compelling performances and real emotive punch.