Reviewed by Brie McFarlane

Within a relatively short span at the Ottawa Fringe Festival this year I saw two plays that attempt to comment on misogynistic trends in traditionally male dominated fields through comedy. Though director Nicholas Alain played it way too safe with Richard Hemphill’s text in Duet, or: Pas de Deux; Well Isn’t This Super… Marvellous Man IV: The Return of Marvellous Man is, I think, some of Dead Unicorn Ink’s best work to date. In the first case we see how indecisive directing causes the humour to fall flat whereas the second case features an incredibly strong perspective that results in both hilarity and pointed commentary.

Punchbag Playhouse’s newest show is described in the program as being a comedy about a “double-headed fashion designer and her disastrous first week of work at a prestigious fashion house”. Set in 1966, our two-faced (literally) heroine sets out to make it big in the world of fashion but a dark secret threatens to make itself known. A slapstick satirical comedy in theory, Duet, or: Pas de Deux unfortunately doesn’t follow through in practice.

Official show poster courtesy of Punchbag Playhouse
Official show poster courtesy of Punchbag Playhouse

First, its most glaringly obvious problem is that the production doesn’t look like it’s set in the late 60s at all.  With a text like Duet, where the historical context needs to inform the comedy, it is so very important that the audience have some visual representation of the time period. Firmly grounding the production in such a recognizable era would have given spectators the freedom to laugh at the wildly offensive lines that seem so out of place now in 2016. At the same time the viewer would implicitly draw links between the outdated and outrageous statements of the historical context with the parallel injustices of our own time (i.e.  the suggestion that a woman must “sleep her way to the top” is humorous when set in the “far off land” of 1966, but only because that idea is still imminently real today).

Second, the acting isn’t very self-aware for a comedy of this magnitude. What I mean by this is that ideally, in a good satire or parody the acting feels outside itself; as if the actors are just putting on masks. Here, Alain’s direction feels as though each character has emotions and inner motivations a la Stanislavski, which doesn’t fit with the raucous dialogue. The point isn’t for the characters to be real it’s for the characters to be outrageous. I think some of the actors achieve this better than others (Rick Kaulbars and Hannah Gibson Fraser for example), but for the most part the acting fails to embody the parody it strives to represent. This stylistic clash between performance and text is ultimately responsible for the breakdown in humour.

Unfortunately, because of this the piece itself can be a little hard to swallow due to its jarring nature. So, if you do decide to see Duet, or: Pas de Deux prepare to throw your moral sensitivities to the wind.

On the other hand, Well, Isn’t This Super…(Marvellous Man IV: The Return of Marvellous Man), the latest piece from Dead Unicorn Ink (DUI), successfully tackles the question of gender inequalities in Hollywood action films while at the same time being exceedingly funny. Written by Patrice Forbes, I have to admire the way in which DUI consistently produces new work that sticks to their brand that draws on pop-culture and B-list films. This is the first time that I’ve witnessed work from this company that transcends “fun” and “comedy” and thoughtfully considers a bigger picture.

Image courtesy of Dead Unicorn Ink
Image courtesy of Dead Unicorn Ink

Nikki Reilly just landed the role of Mystic Quartz in the Marvellous Man superhero movie franchise! Now she has to battle the ego of superstar Dan Stevens and impress the young director Michael Cove before she can land her own multi-film deal. Does Nikki have what it takes to wear a cape? Or will she learn that women need more than high heels and body tape to make it in the comic book world?” (Festival program, 2016)

What I appreciate most about this show is its attention to detail. By using creative (and cheesy in the best possible way) costumes and clever textual references to Hollywood, DUI hits the nail on the head when it comes to making pointed comments about the current state of female representation in the action-adventure genre of film and, in particular, the comic book world. The fact that Mystic Quartz dons what some might consider to be more akin to lingerie (i.e. corset, fishnets, and black knee high heels) is hilarious but also par for the course when it comes to many of female superheroes depicted in comic books (and some films). Her skimpy costume choice is made even more obvious by her male counterpart who wears a full body costume while simultaneously maintaining full agency when it comes to showing his body (as evidenced by all the times he takes off his shirt for no apparent reason).

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn (2016)
Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn (Suicide Squad, 2016)
Black Canary
Black Canary

There are so many great lines and moments in this piece that it’s hard to know where to begin. Where the acting choices in Duet seemed to strive towards making their characters “real”, the performers in Well, Isn’t This Super… appear to be aware that their characters act as vehicles for the biting satire that’s underneath the surface of this seemingly simple story. The brief discussion between Nikki and Dan (played by Aaron Lajeunesse) about performing their own stunts is hilarious but nonetheless serves as a stark reminder that the wage gap is still a very real thing that exists.

Moreover, there is another thoughtful conversation that happens between Nikki and the Production Assistant Len (Genevieve LeBlanc) where they discuss the differences in how male and female superheroes are portrayed to readers as the former being “actionary” and the latter being “reactionary” thus why the females are often seen as the objects of interest and/or rescue. They go on to further discuss how this idea even translates into the characters superpowers themselves: whereas men are often given an incredible boost in physical power; women’s powers are often informed or affected by their emotions or emotional traumas (i.e. Jean Grey’s inability to control her powers due to it being attached to the subconscious/emotional part of her brain or Black Widow’s hysterectomy suggesting that a woman’s uterus makes her both vulnerable and weak).

Where Len appears to be the voice of reason, or the moral conscious, to our somewhat innocent protagonist Nikki; Dan and hotshot director Michael Cove(played by Jon Dickey) are two complete stereotypes that represent the pillars of this ridiculous society where women are objectified and heavily encouraged to use their sexuality to get ahead in their careers and where the only time a woman is actually successful is if a male-run production company signs off on it (does this sound familiar to you?). Dickey and Lajeunesse do an impressive job of maintaining that fine layer of irony underneath their lines and this provides the key into the humour of these characters who embody some truly offensive (and, again, still very prevalent) ideals. Dan’s character experiences a moment of redemption, however, when he reveals how he too is sorely subject to the will (and many binding contracts) of the Producers.

I would love to see this work mounted again in a theatre proper. Not that Café Nostalgica is a bad space by any means, just that Well, Isn’t This Super…(Marvellous Man IV: The Return of Marvellous Man) deserves a much bigger audience.

Misogyny is a tricky topic to tackle and should certainly not be taken lightly. Comedy, by way of satire, is one of the best ways to deconstruct long-standing and harmful social structures and can be very useful in exploring injustice and oppression. However, when handled improperly, as in the case of Duet, or: Pas de Deux, the work doesn’t succeed in fighting (or commenting on) the patriarchy as it perhaps intended, but rather prevents the discourse from developing.  Where Duet failed in its handling of this issue, Well, Isn’t This Super takes up the gauntlet and speaks to a contemporary audience shedding light on an increasingly pertinent topic.

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