Review by Wes Babcock
Man Walks Into a Bar pulls apart the conventions of comedy and theatre to deliver a powerful examination of the roles we inhabit in our real lives.
Created by Rachel Blair, and performed by Blair and Blue Bigwood-Mallin, this show aims straight at the centre of the ongoing discussion about gender roles and the culture of gendered violence that defines them. On stage, the characters struggle with these cultural conventions and each other to give voice to their version of the narrative. The spare set affords the performers liberty to each embody two “characters:” Blair, the joke-teller and the server within the joke; Bigwood-Mallin, the joke-helper and the Man who walks into the bar. It quickly becomes clear that the joke-helper is not actually assisting in the female joke-teller’s telling of the joke, but rather participating in or perpetrating a systematic undermining of her narrative. As the show progresses, the central though unspoken tension becomes assigning the responsibility and blame for the lack of humour felt in turns by the characters, and which causes the breakdown of the comfortable divisions between the “real” world of the joke-teller and –helper, and the “joke” world of the server and the man.
The most powerful moment in the show comes in the discussion of the “uniform” the bartender wears as part of her job. The Man manipulates Her into actually donning the uniform “to make the joke better,” to which she ultimately assents. She asks him to turn around so that she can change in privacy, and like a “perfect gentleman,” he does. At this point, She removes her dress, standing before the audience in her underwear and then putting on her serving “uniform.” In this act, the audience also becomes implicated thoroughly in the power-struggle taking place on stage on a number of levels.
We are watching her when she has explicitly asked for privacy. With the Man vanished upstage, and her changing front and centre, there is nothing to divert our attention from her. When the joke-teller removes her clothing, it is as though the illusory distinction between her and the character she is telling about vanish in a literal stripping away of the physical barriers of her clothing.
This moment embodies the breakdown in the barriers between characters of the joke-teller and the server, and the joke-helper and the man. The divide between the roles these individuals inhabit break down as the stakes in their conflict increase. Neither character can afford to leave anything out of the conversation as the blame for the situation comes closer to assignation; the person who is wrong loses more than the argument, they essentially lose their right to their identity as a “normal” person. The implication being that by losing touch with “normalcy,” one becomes a sort of reprehensible sub-human creature.
A further distinction also disappears in this moment; the distinction between the actor and the characters she’s playing. In the theatre, you watch what happens on the stage; it has been prepared for your eye, for your appreciation and assessment. But though it was clearly rehearsed, this still felt like a moment of genuine vulnerability, coercion, and violence in which I was suddenly and dramatically complicit. I felt deeply uncomfortable in this moment as the conventions of the theatre went to war with the conventions of human relationships, and my own right to consider myself a decent human. When a person asks you to look away, decent people look away. When a character in a play asks you to look away, decent people are under no obligation to do so. We feel a certain liberty to look because it is being presented for us, we’ve paid to be there, haven’t we? She’s acting on stage, isn’t she? Didn’t she expect people would be watching? In this moment, when the illusion that there is a difference between the actor and the characters they embody vanishes, the barrier between members of the audience and the performer on stage is also shattered; we cease to occupy distinct categories when confronted with our shared individual humanity. We are forced to wonder about our own active roles in erasing an individual’s humanity where we might normally consider ourselves passively separate from their actions.
This show does an excellent job exploring these issues, and providing a visceral experience for the audience to think about. While the performers are solid, they sometimes struggle with a very deep-seated challenge contained within the script, which is simultaneously the strongest asset of the show.
The struggle is this: to make the characters into “real” individuals with distinct personalities and depth in a play where the characters are clearly and explicitly standing in for a “normal” man and woman, that is, allegorically for all men and women. It is very hard to make a character simultaneously an individual and an archetype. Beyond the erasure of other identities in the gender-binary conception of this show, which are I think simply beyond its scope, for a show that is very aware of itself and the conventions of theatre, it is remarkably unselfconscious about a whole lot of the gender stereotypes it seems to embrace to fulfill its tactical requirements. For example, it never questions its presentation of the server as the woman and the patron as the man. While this is obviously expedient for the ends of the show to do this, it could also be powerful to switch the roles around for us to witness the difference in the dynamic. Furthermore, seeing these characters occupy opposite roles would deepen their individuality, which remains very superficial.
That said, there exists powerful tension in the dramatic irony wherein the audience knows the characters better than they seem to know themselves, and sees problems and shortcomings of the necessarily limited perspective of their discourse. This tension is probably worth exploring more deeply.
A Man Walks Into a Bar is effective in exploring/stepping around the shortcomings and conventions of both the theatrical form of its presentation, and the “comedic” form of its narrative. This was a really poignant way to disarm the audience and get around the social filters we erect in our lives, in order to speak directly to the meta-level of our interactions with one another. A powerful meta-drama that presents itself as a joke, the show embodies an excellent examination of the cultural discourse of our moment, and is one of the best at Undercurrents.