The Cultch
Beautiful Man by Erin Shields

When & Where February 24 - March 5, 2022 at 7.30pm; 2pm matinees on Feb. 27 & Mar. 5 | Historic Theatre, The Cultch on Venables

Director Keltie Forsyth Producer Libby Willoughby Lighting Design Jeff Harrison Set Design Lauchlin Johnston Costume Design Alaia Hammer Sound Design Mary Jane Coomber Production Manager Alexander Forsyth Stage Manager Jethelo E. Cabilete

Reviewer John Jane

Erin Shields' Beautiful Man is the second play in the Cultch's fifth annual Femme Festival. It's a rather misleading title for a satirical observation of how women are portrayed in the movies and on television. Montréal based Erin Shields, through director Keltie Forsyth, puts theatre audiences in an alternative universe where it's men, not women, who are objects of sexual fascination.

Three unnamed, thirty-something women (Melissa Oei, Tracy Jennissen and Ivy Charles) get together for a gal-pal outing and discuss what they have been watching on television through an exaggerated machismo lens. The women agree and disagree only on the acceptable limit of sexual bias. While there is an over emphasis on the women's preoccupation with "boners," their essential focus is on the fictional characters they perceive as heroines (oops! I mean heroes). Their collective esteem is in the form of a tough-as-nails female detective, a testicle-pulverizing Amazon that might have stepped out of a Game of Thrones episode and a cavewoman marionette with proclivity towards wacky spousal roughness.

The dialogue shared roughly equally between the actors in more in commentary mode, rather than conversation. Eye contact is much less frequent than looking up to the back of the house as if gazing at an invisible screen. To Keltie Forsyth credit, she allows movement from the actors which involve rotating around a faux concrete stepped structure in the middle of stage. This, at least, distracts the audience, from recognizing that the play's first seventy minutes provides only a single concept.

But just when the play starts showing signs of tedium, it suddenly steers a hard right. Richard Meen, the only male cast member, who had been hitherto perched on an elevated platform, not quite a beautiful man, but certainly good-looking in a well-tailored suit. Only required to fill in gaps in the narrative presented by the women with creative movement and the occasional grunt, he suddenly becomes loquacious.

While the earlier dialogue was campy and targeted to the female section of the audience, Meen's purposeful monologue was poignant and meant to be heard by men. By this time, only dressed in his underwear, he takes on a female perspective, connecting with the fears, frustrations and unfairness that professional women deal with on a daily basis.

All the actors fully committed to the premise of a reverse back-to-front world, but perhaps none more so than Richard Meen, who is first the object, then the spokesperson for a shift in attitude.

© 2022 John Jane