Richard Hemphill’s Duet, or: Pas de Deux is a silly romp that takes the silly too far, verging on the cartoonish.
Trinity has an unusual problem: she was born with a parasitic twin whose head pokes out of her left shoulder, and only one of them can be conscious at a time. Having endured this all her life, Trinity arrives at the offices of fashion house Fussypucker (more on that in a moment) in 1966, ready to make her mark as a fashion designer. The problem: all her designs are actually her sister’s, as Trinity is a skilled seamstress but not creatively gifted. As Trinity rises through the ranks of the fashion world, it becomes obvious that her sister is conspiring against her, before the ultimate reckoning at Fashion Fortnight.
There are a few problems with Hemphill’s script, particularly some storytelling issues as well as the needlessly perverse nature of some of the humour. The story is told from Trinity’s point of view although her mostly non-present sister is the more active character, which results in many scenes just being Trinity having to react to other characters who have interacted with the somewhat mysterious sister. Since Trinity is our main character, we’re finding out a lot of information at the same time as her – to be fair, this does put us in her psychological frame of mind, but 45 minutes of her reacting without moving the plot forward herself also makes for a dull show. The sister does appear a few times, mostly as a deus ex machina to get Trinity out of the situations that she apparently can’t escape herself, like her first meeting with Fussypucker when he quite blatantly expects skeezy office sex.
The other main issue is that quite a few jokes are made at the expense of women and people with birth defects – it’s laid on so thick that you know it must be tongue-in-cheek, but all the same there’s only so many times that someone can make a comment on Trinity’s ‘deformity’ without it getting frustrating. It’s a bit confusing because Trinity’s two-headedness would be an excellent metaphor for a woman making it in what was at the time a much less equal-opportunity field, but since the sexism is so forced there’s not much possibility for that. There’s also unfortunate toilet humour and one Joan Holloway-type secretary character confesses that she is secretly Chinese, which I don’t want to think too much about. The humour is unfortunately pretty tasteless for the most part, as with the name Fussypucker (do you get it yet?) and the same secretary character referring to what I can only assume is crabs as “vagina monkeys.”
The performers are admirably able to take their roles seriously, although with a script like this it might have worked better if they didn’t. Kayla McSorley brings a grudging acceptance to Trinity that works really well for the character’s limited arc, and Rick Kaulbars is able to crack the worst of the sexist jokes with such conviction that it’s hard not to notice how terrible they are. The entire show might work better with a Brechtian twist (actors subtly or not-so-subtly communicating that they fully understand how the audience is going to take things while still delivering their lines faithfully), because even though this is a silly farce at Fringe, I feel like it could be done as a sort of cartoon answer to Mad Men: all the blatant, in-yer-face sexism of this show as a contrast to the cold naturalism (but still omnipresent sexism) of the TV show.
Duet is not Richard Hemphill’s best, but I will eagerly see his offering next year because I know how good his shows can be.
Duet, or: Pas de Deux
A Punchbag Playhouse production
Written by Richard Hemphill
Directed by Nicolas Alain
Stage Management by Jason Hopkins
Production Assistance by Will Verreault Milner
Performed by Shauna Akkermans, Hannah Gibson-Fraser, Rick Kaulbars, and Kayla McSorley