The Motherf**ker With the Hat and Human Furniture are two plays that look at status and honesty in adult relationships.
Last week, we wrote about two productions in Toronto, NSFW and Sextet, that explored the complexities and consequences of lust. The week before, with Moment and Circle Jerk, we looked at intimate theatre in the round, where the actors perform almost in audience members’ laps. This week, we’re looking at two shows, The Motherf**ker With the Hat (the asterisks are part of the title) and Human Furniture, that combine elements of both. But in these productions, while lust plays a part, the emphasis is placed on the importance of fidelity and trust.
The Motherf**ker With the Hat is the first show to be staged at the newly rebranded Coal Mine Theatre, previously known as the Downstage; MoFoTO—as it’s referred to on social media—is co-produced by Bob Kills Theatre, which previously produced Savage in Limbo in the basement Danforth space. It’s a fully in-the-round production; in fact, there’s no stage lighting whatsoever—the scenes are lit naturally with on-stage lighting and simple overhead halogens. That naturalism carries over to the staging and performances, which are exceptional indeed.
Jackie (Sergio Di Zio), newly released from prison, is determined to get his life back on track by rebuilding his relationship with girlfriend Veronica (Melissa D’Agostino), but there are still trust issues between them. Jackie seems to have a closer relationship with his AA sponsor Ralph (Ted Dykstra), who’s willing to host Jackie anytime, despite his own troubles at home with wife Victoria (Nicole Stamp). When Jackie becomes convinced Veronica has been unfaithful, his temper kickstarts a series of events that will affect everyone—including his excessively chipper cousin Julio (Juan Chioran)—and expose a number of long-harboured secrets.
MoFo garnered six Tony nominations when it premiered in New York City, and it’s easy to see why: its crackling dialog, with rapid-fire and almost (but not quite) overlapping responses, is sharp and witty, even if the characters themselves aren’t always. While these sinners and cheaters have some profound insights to impart to each other, they for the most part lack self-awareness.
The most crucial relationship here—and the one that produces the most serious betrayal—is the one between Jackie and Ralph. Di Zio’s temperamental but sincere loser wears his heart on his sleeve—the audience, seated close to the performers, sees every emotion reflected on his face. Ralph, a master manipulator, is a charming bastard, but Dykstra manages to make him sympathetic. While those two are likely to be mentioned come award season, it’s Chioran who has a lock on awards nominations; with limited stage time but maximum impact, his faithful and flamboyant Cousin Julio was a clear crowd favourite. (Both D’Agostino and Stamp are very good but under-served by Guirgis’ script, which focuses on the male bonds.)
Trust is the central theme in MoFo, and it’s important in Human Furniture, too—though the characters have different motivations for keeping secrets. A new play by Storefront Theatre’s general manager Claire Burns, it was inspired by her encounter with a happy and well-adjusted couple who had conventional lives and careers, but lived as Master and Slave at home. In Human Furniture, the Master (Kevin Ritchie) and Slave (Lauren Horejda) have expanded their happy home to include Pet (Karen Knox), who lives a carefree life of subservience (which occasionally includes acting as the human furniture of the play’s title). But both Master and Slave are stressed―she by preparations for a big S&M bash celebrating Pet’s second anniversary in their home, and he by the pressures of his day job.
It’s the pressures of keeping their happy kinks secret that put Master and Slave through the wringer, especially when Master’s conservative boss Don (Thomas Hough) shows up with his WASP-y wife (Samantha Madely), or when the trio has to deal with a nosy neighbour (Lynne Griffin) and jealous co-worker (Mike Tanchuk). The trio’s efforts to keep their home and public lives separate turn the play, which starts out as a sly send-up of Leave it to Beaver–style nuclear-family TV tropes (supported in no small part by the sound and music design by Samuel Shouldice) into a full-blown farce. While all the actors have a lot of fun with their subverted roles and statuses, it’s Horejda and Knox who truly shine: their supposedly subservient characters end up both saving the day and exerting the most influence. Horejda’s equally enjoyable as a prim and proper housewife and a prancing “ponygirl”; Knox is irrepressible throughout as a mischievous sprite, and although her role in the group appears to grant her the lowest status, she’s revealed to be the most honest, capable, and stress-free of them all.
In both plays, honesty is revealed to be the best policy—though in MoFo, that lesson is learned ruefully and regretfully, while in Human Furniture, it brings happiness and lifts the burden of secrecy.