Underneath it All, written and performed by Hannah Gibson-Fraser and Jodi Morden, is a dark and fragmented look into the lives of two women and how their conceptions of love and monogamy are affected by experiences of abuse and mental illness. It’s a truly harrowing tale that is, tragically, a reality for many women living around the world today and this company’s attempt at putting this “raw truth” front and centre is definitely admirable. While the show would certainly benefit from some more fine tuning, particularly in the emotional pacing, it’s a strong effort on behalf of these two local artists.
The structure of the narrative revolves around Gibson-Fraser’s character (for the purpose of this review I’m going to call her the Woman) recounting moments from her life to Morden, whose character appears to be some sort of pseudo-psychologist (or maybe she’s the embodiment of the Woman’s conscience – it’s never made explicit). In any case, Morden’s character often repeats the Woman’s words back to her in the form of questions, gently encouraging the Woman to open up about different aspects of her life: her relationship with her parents; the first time she felt aroused; losing her virginity; her marriage.
In all of these areas the Woman’s experiences have been marred by abuse from the emotional, psychological, and physical abuse by her mother growing up; through the sexual molestation at the hands of a family friend when she was but ten (if I recall the age correctly); to the rape ultimately brought about by the lack of awareness the Woman’s friends had in leaving her alone with a man when she had very obviously been drugged; and finally to the constant and continued domestic abuse perpetrated by her husband. If any of that seems like “a lot” to you, I would recommend perusing the stats here and would point out that it is very likely for a significant portion of women to live through multiple experiences of sexual abuse and/or rape in their lifetime.
Gibson-Fraser and Morden have fragmented their story in such a way that it feels like the Woman, who I can only imagine must be struggling with some form of PTSD, is not only recounting these moments in her life, but reliving them, which is an incredibly powerful mode of storytelling for this particular subject matter. The cyclical nature of this show is a strong choice as well: the way the performers use repetition serves to underscore the oftentimes cyclical nature of abuse and the inability to escape. The movement and physicality on stage also works in this production’s favour; because sexual abuse is centered around the body, oftentimes the body is the only thing that can appropriately convey the destructive, violent, and lasting effects of sexual abuse and/or rape.
Where this show could be tightened most is in its emotional pacing. Gibson-Fraser is undoubtedly a very talented performer, but her intensity starts out so high that it’s difficult for her to build any real momentum with it. Maybe this is why I left the theatre feeling so exhausted, because the audience isn’t so much taken on a journey as they are assailed by the Woman’s incredibly tragic memories. Morden does a good job balancing out this intensity, despite having a rather ambiguous character (is she part of the Woman? Is she a psychologist? Is she even real?).
Also, as a kind of side note, while I respect the choice in lighting design, I find that the snappy changing between red and blue lighting that happens in a lot of scenes can be quite distracting, and it certainly wouldn’t detract from the overall aesthetic if the changes happened more gradually or subtlety.
Ultimately, you have to respect the courage Gibson-Fraser and Morden have in creating and performing a work surrounding such sensitive material because this kind of work is needed now more than ever. Like any new work, it has its kinks, but they are nothing so major that a solid post-Fringe development period wouldn’t solve. If you do go and see their show, make sure to bring some loose change along as they are accepting donations for the Ottawa women’s shelter, Harmony House.
Underneath it All
Produced by PrettyUgly Theatre Productions
Written and performed by Hannah Gibson-Fraser and Jodi Morden
Venue 3: Studio Léonard Beaulne
Friday June 16th @ 10:00pm
Saturday June 17th @ 7:30pm