Brilliant Women on Stage

Two of the plays I saw early in Fringe 2021 featured familiar women on stage in sympathetic nuanced portrayals of women in their middle years. Both, unsurprisingly, were directed by Trevor Schmidt.

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Woman Caught Unaware, by Annie Fox, is a solo performance by Davina Stewart. The art history professor is in her office, planning to head home to her partner, when a student appears outside of office hours. I enjoyed the the confident academic’s wry observations on student behaviour and the changing expectations for faculty members as the student seems reluctant to confide about a problem, and the professor runs through the recent advice on what to do about cyberbullying and other issues. (I was reminded of Professor Kate Fansler in Amanda Cross’s mystery novels.)

But the student has come to tell – and show – her instructor that it’s actually Professor Conté’s nude image that’s being shared on-line, with harsh comments about her aging body. And while the narrator tries to ignore it, she discovers “allies” all around her, each responding in well-intentioned but self-centred ways to adopt a cause. A protest! A petition! A nude calendar!

We get to see why the professor anticipates the sanctuary of home, in brief affectionate images of her partner Gail (“I’m like a pin, she’s like a pincushion”), their cottage, their garden, the savoury aroma of Gail’s beef bourguignon on the stove (“we’re pescatarian in public, but …”). And she eventually addresses the issue directly (this is me resisting the full-frontal metaphors), in ways that left me satisfied about an articulate older woman taking back power. I loved watching and listening to Davina Stewart in this role.

Woman Caught Unaware has performances Monday through Sunday at the Varscona Theatre with some tickets available for each.

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Destination Wedding is a Whizgiggling Productions work, written and directed by Trevor Schmidt, and performed by Cheryl Jamieson, Kristin Johnston, and Michelle Todd.

Three women meet up after many years, having all been invited to be attendants at an old friend’s destination wedding in a tropical resort location that Honey (Jamieson) insists they not name. Johnston’s Marlene is an artist seated with powerful stillness in black. Todd’s Britt is a lesbian, a successful businesswoman, and the one who slips naturally into curbing the worst of Honey’s impulses (“No, you can’t go get your hair braided on the beach / wear a bride’s tribe t-shirt, that’s appropriative”) her affect suggesting that she does this all day long and she doesn’t expect Honey to learn.

With the three fascinating characters, this premise would be enough to make an entertaining Fringe show – as if the mother’s-friends-chorus in Mamma Mia were distinct interesting people. But it turns into a darker, more ambiguous, story. Various details were mentioned – the kinds of breadcrumbs that a less subtle narrative would explain as Clues. At one point I noticed that the painted backdrop of a resort veranda scene now seemed to have a dark sky and a stormy sea, which I guess was some magic of lighting design (also Schmidt).

While the three are waiting for their old friend the bride to show up, they meet some other significant characters, providing opportunity for these three talented actors to demonstrate their skill distinguishing multiple roles, and for the audience to be even more entertained and diverted from what was turning into a central mystery. I particularly liked Johnston’s Amy, the bride’s daughter, all eye-rolling and vocal fry.

The hints weren’t all tidily wrapped up into clues and exposition, but left in a delicious suspension. I wished I’d gone with a friend to have fun figuring those things out afterwards. Maybe I should go back. But if I do, I better buy a ticket soon, since some of the remaining seven performances are already sold out.

Both these shows are also available for online viewing.

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