Contemplating Man at His Worst
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Contemplating Man at His Worst

Two plays, the comic Domesticated and the tragic Nirbhaya, force us to consider how men treat women.

Ankur Vikal, left, and Priyanka Bose in a scene from Nirbhaya  Photo by William Burdett Coutts

Ankur Vikal, left, and Priyanka Bose in a scene from Nirbhaya. Photo by William Burdett Coutts.

Harbourfront Centre Theatre (231 Queens Quay West)
Runs to Nov. 29
$20 – $45

Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street)
Runs to Dec. 20
$30 – $53

What is wrong with men? Why do they rape, abuse, and kill women? Or, at the very least, why do they allow lust to override their intelligence and sense of morality? Those are the questions underlying two plays now onstage in Toronto, which could be collectively titled “Man at His Worst.”

The first, and most powerful, is Nirbhaya, Yaël Farber’s searing drama about violence against women. Originally staged in the U.K. and now being presented by Nightwood at Harbourfront, this remarkable touring show was inspired by the horrifying gang rape of a young woman on a Delhi bus in 2012, which made world headlines. In the show, five brave South Asian women share their own experiences of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of men.

Farber—the Montreal-based, South-African theatre artist who gave us last season’s Dora Award-winning Mies Julie—does make a passing attempt to explain the behaviour of these men. Her play cites the brutal poverty in India that turns them into walking time bombs and the patriarchal traditions that perpetuate misogyny. The show also features a lone male, Ankur Vikal, who speaks for the decent, caring members of his sex. However, the predominant man presented here, whether husband or father or stranger on public transport, is a threat to women.

But Farber’s main concern isn’t with causes. Nirbhaya (Hindi for “fearless”) is about giving a voice to those who have silently endured the kind of abuse that found its most egregious form in the rape and subsequent death of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey, the woman on the bus. It’s a play about the victims, not the perpetrators.

American playwright Bruce Norris, on the other hand, does try to dig deeper into male bad behaviour—albeit in a facetious, satirical fashion—in the second play, Domesticated. Norris’ comedy, now at the Berkeley Street Theatre, takes one of those all-too-familiar political sex scandals and uses it to suggest that the heterosexual male may be a thrashing dinosaur on his way to extinction.

Bill, played by Paul Gross in this Company TheatreCanadian Stage production, is caught with a prostitute and forced to resign his (unspecified) political position. It turns out he’s a longtime serial adulterer with a fetish for teenage girls—all news to his mortified wife, Judy (Martha Burns, Gross’ real-life spouse). The first act is Judy’s, as we watch the scandal and its ugly fallout from her perspective. Gross’ shamefaced Bill barely utters a word. He finally gets his say in Act 2, when he seeks to explain his cynical views on love, sex, and marriage, while continuing to make a string of politically incorrect blunders that hasten his downward spiral.

Martha Burns and Paul Gross star in Bruce Norris's Domesticated  Photo courtesy of Red Eye Media

Martha Burns and Paul Gross star in Bruce Norris’s Domesticated. Photo courtesy of Red Eye Media.

It’s not always clear if Norris thinks men like Bill are clueless and doomed, or if he’s mocking the ascendancy of feminist and queer attitudes—at one point, blundering Bill gets a literal smackdown from a humourless transsexual (Salvatore Antonio) in a bar. The play’s running joke consists of Bill and Judy’s adopted Cambodian daughter Cassidy (Abigail Pew) giving a slideshow presentation on sexual dimorphism, in which males in the animal kingdom are shown in order of increasing insignificance. The male zombie worm, or bone-eating snot-flower, apparently has the worst of it, being no more than a microscopic dwarf inside the female’s genital sac.

You can imagine the ghosts of radical-feminist man-haters Andrea Dworkin and Valerie Solanis, author of the infamous SCUM Manifesto, chuckling with glee at this. And given their backgrounds of abuse, Dworkin and Solanis had every right to hate men, as do the women sharing their stories in Nirbhaya.

These five performers—Priyanka Bose, Poorna Jagannathan, Sneha Jawale, Rukhsar Kabir, and Toronto’s own Pamela Mala Sinha—speak with boldness and eloquence about the trauma inflicted upon them as girls and young women. Whether told with defiance (Jagannathan), anger and disgust (Bose), or heart-rending distress (Jawale), their tales will leave you feeling outraged. Jawale, in particular, her face and arms bearing the scars of her husband’s aborted attempt to burn her to death in one of those notorious “kitchen accidents,” gives a courageous performance you’ll never forget.

Farber stages their monologues, as well as a stylized re-enactment of the gang rape, with superb artistry. Singer Japjit Kaur, an ethereal-looking figure clad in white, provides plangent vocals to accompany the other women’s stories, as well as portraying Jyoti Singh Pandey. The play culminates with a solemnly beautiful funeral ritual for the murdered woman, which reclaims her violated body from the filthy hands of her killers.

It would be excessive to compare those men with Bill in Domesticated, whose transgressions don’t go beyond adultery with paid escorts. But you have to wonder: what if he couldn’t pay for sex? And at what point does a respectable middle-aged man with a raging libido become a savage animal? Does every “Bill” have the potential to be a Cosby?

Norris doesn’t address that; his focus is on a fundamental lack of understanding between Bill and Judy and, by extension, the sexes. As he proved with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park, which measured America’s ongoing racial divide, he’s good at dramatizing opposing viewpoints. But Domesticated doesn’t go beyond presenting us with the old Mars-versus-Venus view of men and women, with Mars seen here as a dying planet. Norris’ writing is often funny, and director Philip Riccio draws excellent performances from Gross, Burns, and especially Torri Higginson as the lawyer-friend-lover awkwardly caught up in Bill and Judy’s crisis. But you leave this overlong play feeling sad and no wiser.

“How can I live with myself as man?” cries out Vikal, reacting to the gang rape in Nirbhaya. Certainly, that play, if not Domesticated, will make male audience members feel ashamed for their gender. We may be horrified by what men are capable of, or laugh at their weakness and stupidity, but it’s clear that something fundamental has to change in the way that they relate to women.