Cliff Cardinal’s Stitch finds both comedy and tragedy in the out-of-control life of an internet porn star.
Aki Studio (Daniels Spectrum) (585 Dundas Street East)
Runs to June 14
$15 – $25
If there was a Dora Award for Best Simulated Self-Mutilation by an Actress, Georgina Beaty would be this season’s hands-down winner. Beaty’s excruciating “needlework” at the climax of Stitch, Cliff Cardinal’s one-woman nightmare at the Aki Studio, will have you wincing and averting your eyes.
By then, however, you’ll have seen plenty of discomfort. In this caustic black comedy, Beaty portrays internet porn star Kylie Grandview, a woman whose job is to simulate pleasure, even as she’s writhing in physical and psychological pain. Body-wise, she’s cursed with an especially wicked yeast infection that barely responds to medical creams. To numb the itch she’s taken to snorting heroin—a treatment that nine out of 10 gynecologists do not recommend.
The smack also helps her blot out the mental agonies that come from being a single mother who supports herself and her little daughter by degrading herself in front of a camera. To make it worse, her precocious eight-year-old, Ayla, has found one of mommy’s videos and was caught trying to fellate the boy next door.
Cardinal’s play, originally seen at SummerWorks in 2011 and now being presented by Native Earth in a production by Culture Storm, is by turns funny, shocking, and sad. It’s cleverly structured as a series of short scenes or “clicks” that both mimic compulsive internet surfing and suggest the main character’s scattered mind as she leads us, window by window, through her tragic story.
Kylie begins by describing an apparently typical day in which she tries to get through an exasperating film shoot—involving a flaccid male co-star, a scene-stealing rival, and some spontaneous (and now eerily Ghomeshi-like) violence—with one eye on the clock so she won’t miss picking up her daughter after school. Later, at a clinic to have her yeast infection treated, she meets a producer who recognizes her face and wants her to act in a legit film with a big-name director. But just as she’s poised for what she hopes is her big break, Kylie’s outraged mother, who babysits Ayla and has decided the little girl is being corrupted, calls the cops.
Faced with losing custody of her child, Kylie is distraught. Yet her fight to prove she’s a loving mother is sabotaged by her own self-loathing—personified by that yeast infection, which takes the form of a heartless mean girl named Itchia who routinely mocks and sneers at Kylie’s efforts while coolly dragging on a cigarette.
Beaty becomes all the characters in Kylie’s story, from that real bitch of an infection to bright but innocent Ayla, who obsessively spells out every big word she hears. The actress has the most fun embodying Kylie’s grotesque agent and mentor, a cheerfully sleazy lawyer known as Johnnie Cockring—although, despite the name, he’s less like the late legal hotshot Johnnie Cochran and more like an oversexed version of Bob Odenkirk’s lovably sketchy Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad. When Beaty transforms into Kylie’s hated mother, a sour-mouthed, self-righteous ex-addict, we’re reminded that we’re seeing these characters through Kylie’s bitter eyes—there’s no suggestion that her mom may not be acting vindictively, but out of genuine concern for her grandchild.
This was Cardinal’s first produced play—he’s since premiered two others at SummerWorks—and it has the marks of a beginner. The scuzzy porn world he conjures up, while amusing, feels second-hand and could easily have been cribbed from Boogie Nights and other films. And the shock climax, while it fits with Kylie’s impulsive nature, is a bit of old-school melodrama. (It was also outdone by Alice Tuan’s Ajax (por nobody), another explicit play about sex with an even grislier denouement, which got a graphic staging at SummerWorks in 2012.)
But Kylie is a fascinating and infuriating character who belies the stereotype of the dimwitted but well-endowed porn star—she’s smart, witty, angry, self-aware, and yet unable to break the patterns of behaviour that are messing up her life. Her scenes with her daughter are particularly affecting—and distressing, too, when you realize her pet term for Ayla, “Snowflake,” is the same name that Johnnie calls Kylie. Johnny discovered Kylie as a teenager working at McDonald’s and who’s to say that Ayla, already experimenting with oral sex, won’t follow in her mother’s stiletto-heeled footsteps?
Cardinal, son of the celebrated Métis actress Tantoo Cardinal, originally created Kylie as an acting vehicle for his sister, Riel, while Ojibwe actress Cara Gee ended up playing the role at SummerWorks. However, there’s no indication that Kylie is meant to be of aboriginal descent and Beaty, blond and white, is very effective here. (Cardinal has defended the casting choice on the Culture Storm website.)
Director Jovanni Sy and designer Andy Moro, who built the SummerWorks show, return to give this semi-remount a stark but imaginative staging. Sy has Beaty making deft use of a chair as her only prop, while Moro throws squares of white light onto to the dark stage to suggest a computer screen and shafts of inflamed red when Itchia has her vicious outbreaks.
Cardinal says he was reading Chuck Palahniuk, Irvine Welsh, and Hubert Selby, Jr. when he wrote Stitch, and you can see their dark influence. But at the play’s horrifying end, he has put a spin on a much older literary source, the Gospel According to Matthew: “And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.” Kylie’s act of mutilation may be extreme, but we can only hope it will also be her salvation.