Two new Toronto-born and adults-only plays, S H E E T S and The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely, explore issues of sexuality, intimacy, and identity.
Scenes of sexuality aren’t often explored on Toronto’s relatively conservative stages. Ideas about politics, relationships, activism, and identity get a lot of exposure, but rarely does said exposure include skin, and especially skin on skin. Part of this is due to the minefield of onstage intimacy. But two new shows are focusing on behind-closed-doors encounters, and portraying those scenes most other shows might simply allude to.
S H E E T S was the last production staged at the tiny storefront venue Videofag before it closed down, a close-quarters and in-the-round experience that put its performers—all but one of whom shed clothing—practically in some audience members’ laps, as they navigated the hotel room setting. This new production in the Theatre Centre main space places the audiences on three sides of the “room,” with the seating raked, in an effort to preserve that intimacy. Videofag co-founder, William Ellis, is the only returning performer from the previous iteration of the show, playing a nude spectre who slowly “floats” around the room that serves as the setting for a wide variety of intimate encounters—and not all of them sexual. In the first scene, Michael (Prince Amponsah) reluctantly asks Lucia (Tabby Johnson), a serene housekeeper, to help him dress for a friend’s funeral. Michael hasn’t worn formalwear since a horrible accident (the evidence of which is clear as he undresses), and his frustration at asking a stranger to help him dress is palpable.
Other scenes in the show are highly sexual, including a will-they-or-won’t-they threesome between two male friends, Ben (Danny Ghantous) and Adam (David Reale), and the female friend they’re both attracted to, Sam (Dayle McLeod), who has different expectations of how the encounter will proceed. This scene and others, including an assignation between a mature businesswoman (Jennifer Wigmore, in a standout performance) and a male escort (Tyler Stentiford), include all the anxiety, humour, and tension that shedding clothes and inhibitions tend to produce, especially when lust takes a back seat to more considered needs. Director and writer Antonio Salvatore includes a final scene featuring Ellis’ ghost and a possible kindred spirit (Alice Snaden), and some of the dialogue mirrors the audience and cast’s collective experience: “After this, we all know each other.”
Ngozi Paul’s show The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely is also set in a hotel, but in the bathroom, where her character Lovely takes stock of her sexual history immediately after another disappointing liason, where an offstage lover has rebuffed her, post-coitus. Pulling on a short shirt after an uninhibited opening dance sequence in a revealing bodysuit, she looks at herself in the mirror (the unusually sleek and reflective set by Judith Bowden and Erin Gerofsky greatly improves on Paul’s previous bare stage SummerWorks production), and begins to flash back to her earliest memories of desire and rejection. Issues of racism, identity, and self-worth are all woven into Lovely’s flashbacks, and eventually also include a historical figure: Sara Baartman, the South African Khoikhoi woman who was exhibited in Paris, both before and after her death, due to her un-European physical attributes. Paul (or Lovely) imagines Baartman’s own enfranchisement of her sexuality despite her poor treatment by her exploiters, and we see how this inspires Lovely, as her sexual history is openly recounted, to her own enfranchisement of her sexuality, rejecting much of the expectations she’s had forced on her by society and her family.
If S H E E T S is an exploration of coming to know one another, Lovely’s journey is towards knowing oneself, and the importance of that knowledge before finding love with another. Neither theme is revelatory in theatre, but seeing performers tackle them in this manner is definitely rare.
The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely runs to April 8, Streetcar Crowsnest (345 Carlaw Avenue), Monday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday 2 p.m., $$25-$35.
S H E E T S runs to April 9, The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West), Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m., $30-$35.
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