Review by Ian Huffam
Quote Unquote Collective’s Mouthpiece is provocative and relevant, funny and horrifying, universal yet highly individualized, and deals beautifully with ugly issues. A lot can rush through someone’s mind in one day, which is what we see in this tightly choreographed parade of one woman’s thoughts and experiences over a single day.
Cassandra Hayward wakes up in the morning and receives the news that her mother has just died, and she must spend her day picking out a casket, floral arrangements, and funeral outfits for both herself and the deceased. Already a tough day to get through, she’s also been asked to give the eulogy and so her thoughts consistently wander towards what she can say that will not only sum up her mother’s life but also do it in a respectful way (whatever that means). That’s about it for plot, but that’s not the point of the show – here it’s all about how the story is told, and let me tell you, it is powerful.
Creators/performers Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava weave in and out of unison as Cassandra’s consciousness, mostly agreeing and supporting one another, but increasingly standing up to one another as Cassandra’s mental resolve breaks down over the course of the day. Their two set pieces, a bathtub and an old-fashioned microphone, see plenty of use and manipulation (including a particularly breathtaking image of Sadava lying in the bathtub on its side, representing a casket but strikingly resembling a womb), but it is the speaking, singing, and movement of Nostbakken and Sadava that makes this show a delight to watch.
I cannot imagine how many hours of rehearsal must have gone into choreographing this show, because despite its easily digestible 60-minute running time this show is a snappy whirlwind of moment after moment, just as thoughts are continuously racing across our minds. When Nostbakken and Sadava narrate Cassandra’s thoughts in together (maybe about 60% of the lines), they do so not only in perfect unison, but also at different pitches in order to make the words even clearer through harmony. They do this not just for Cassandra’s thoughts, but also for the variety of sympathetic voicemails her friends and relatives leave for her throughout the day. The strength of the performers’ unison is particularly evident in the external voices we gain access to through her interactions with a florist and an unsympathetic coffin saleswoman, as well as the voicemails. When it comes time for internal reflection, the physicality comes out, and the performers move in unison as well, with the visual contrast between Nostbakken (tall and brunette) and Sadava (short and brunette) forming a lovely yin-yang effect.
The technique is impeccable, but the content is the real meat of the show. The feminist discourse that races through Cassandra’s head as she ponders her mother’s fixation on image, her own, and the factors behind it gives much food for thought. From the simple revelation that one’s fast food choices can speak to gender performativity (“I never liked fries. I order them because I don’t want people to think I care about getting fat”); the bombardment of beauty magazines directed at teenage girls (a rapid-fire list of such publications goes on for an uncomfortable length of time, especially given that every single one they mention actually exists and they don’t repeat any) and older women (“Mom’s stack of Vogue magazines going back to 1986”); everything snowballs to the point where unified voice and movement break down entirely as the two halves of Cassandra’s mind fight against each other on the validity of this feminist discourse in the first place, culminating in each (physically) tearing each other down in a sequence that must be as exhausting to perform as it is to watch. “Feminist theatre” is an obvious descriptor for Mouthpiece, but Nostbakken and Sadava cleverly acknowledge the arguments against the feminist ‘agenda’, mostly through the timely inclusion of intersectionality (i.e. while it sucks that a heteronormative white woman still has to deal with sexism, she’s still better off than many other demographics such as lesbian/trans women or women of colour. It sounds flimsy to explain it in those words – after all, institutionalized bigotry is terrible no matter who it affects – but the inclusion of this viewpoint strengthens the show because not to acknowledge this unpleasant reality would have been a major weakness).
I want to stress that this show also has very funny moments, mostly through the voicemail sequences as well as a few sight gags that I can’t give away without ruining. Still, the major theme of the feminist discourse will stay with you as much as the admirable choreography and performance.
Mouthpiece is an excellent addition to the undercurrents line-up this year, being one of the strongest performances I’ve seen in Ottawa. Its impressive list of 6 Dora Award nominations (in categories such as Outstanding Production and Outstanding New Play) with 2 wins (for Outstanding Performance – Ensemble and Outstanding Sound Design/Composition) from its initial run in Toronto speak to the quality of this piece, and I certainly hope that this bodes well for future opportunities to see not just this show again but more from the talented team that put it together.
A Quote Unquote Collective Production
Created and Performed by Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava
Directed by Amy Nostbakken
Produced by Elizabeth Kantor
Lighting Design by André du Toit
Choreography and Dramaturgy by Orian Mitchell
Sound Design by James Bunton
Stage Managed by Rebecca Vandevelde
At Arts Court Theatre for undercurrents
Thursday 11 February: 7:00 pm
Friday 12 February: 9:00 pm (there will be a talkback after this performance)
Saturday 13 February: 9:00 pm