If you were one of the lucky ones to nab tickets to the one-night-only performance of Adam Lazarus’ Daughter at this year’s undercurrents, then you will no doubt understand what I mean when I say that it is almost quite literally one of the worst shows you will ever sit through. Don’t get me wrong, this is by no means a comment on the incredible artistic merit that went into creating and producing this show; but that the way the content is presented to us is so uncomfortable that the chosen quote in the show’s online description, “boys will be boys”, barely begins to scratch the surface of what we learn the character is ultimately capable of. And it has to be this way. On the one hand, while I can’t recommend this show enough given its high quality I also suggest that those who consider themselves to be a little faint-hearted- proceed with caution.
Daughter, a co-production between companies QuipTake and Pandemic Theatre, first premiered in 2016 as part of Toronto’s Summerworks Performance Festival and, since then, has gone on to tour across the country to much critical acclaim. The hype for this show was very real with positive recommendations coming from not only local theatre goers, but also from out-of-town acquaintances and friends. Needless to say, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person disappointed when the news broke that it’s first show at undercurrents this year had been cancelled, leaving just one show left in the entire festival.
The show is described in the festival program as “blurring the lines between truth and fiction, autobiography and fantasy, Daughter is a darkly satirical piece about a father, raised in patriarchy, confronting his new identity as patriarch”. For the most part, this synopsis rings true (though a little later on I will discuss the perceived lack of appropriate audience advisories in the festival program): we are introduced to a ‘singular’ (again, more on that later) male character who, as the play unfolds, becomes more and more confused by his daughter and how to raise her given how he himself was brought up in our patriarchal society.
Performer Adam Lazarus is almost too effective in this regard using his skillful training in bouffon to lure his audience in at the outset with a self-deprecating kind of humour as he describes, in detail, his journey alongside his wife towards the birth of their first daughter. This behaviour is crucial to the piece in the way that Lazarus builds this character up as a loving and responsive partner (someone who’s totally supportive of his wife’s desire to undergo a hypnobirth, for example), only to completely destroy and deconstruct this image later on through continuous visits to his past memories as he reflects on his unsettling behaviour through the eyes of a new father. When the layers behind this relatively likeable character are stripped away to reveal such a heinous individual we are encouraged to question how we traditionally view and or stereotype abusive figures. Daughter seeks to underline the fact that hatred towards women is far too often deeply entrenched within the people that we might least expect while simultaneously asks us to question our own complicity within this deeply vicious cycle called misogyny.
We are shown how this cycle begins with the birth of the character’s daughter and the subsequent birth of their son. The way the respective pregnancies and births are described could not be more different: the birth of their daughter is quite difficult and in the end his wife gives up on her desire to have a natural birth and concedes to the epidural; their son, on the other hand, is born at home en-caul, meaning born while still inside the amniotic sac which (while incredibly rare), according to folklore, is seen as a sign of good luck and an omen that the child is to be destined for greatness. These experiences go on to inform how this main character rears his children: despite the fact that his son could very well grow up to be a man just like him, the character’s fear and confusion rests solely with his daughter. Constantly perplexed by his daughter’s actions and reactions, Lazarus gives off an almost hyper-paranoia about her existing in a world that would seek to objectify her. This is perhaps most obvious when he mentions how proud he is of his daughter for showing the traditionally masculine traits of aggression and physical dominance towards another boy who, we are told, has a much more sensitive disposition.
There is a lot of content in this play that is quite graphic and can be, at times, incredibly difficult to sit through. You can feel tension in the room building to an almost unbearable degree as the character recounts some horrifying past experiences which includes knowingly passing STIs on to female partners and not telling them (right away); justifying an extramarital affair with a 16 year old girl who we are told has a bit of a fetish for violence in bed; and the incredibly ambiguity of consent in pornography while reenacting the “pornstar’s” wails of pain (or pleasure, we are never actually sure and that’s the idea behind it). Like I said earlier, this goes far beyond a “boys will be boys” mentality, and it should be mentioned that knowingly passing on STIs to another individual without their knowledge is illegal; I’d like to believe that most men, while certainly remaining complicit in and benefiting from patriarchy, would not stoop this low even on their worst days. But, I suppose, in this day and age, one can never be too sure.
There are no female characters in this play, in the traditional sense anyways, and more often than not the women in this character’s life are objects that arouse confusion and fear and maybe have a handful of lines that are attributed to them collectively. The wife is portrayed as being mostly ignorant to her husband’s misgivings and, we are told, threatens to leave him only once and seemingly remains at his side as a silent and complicit bystander. The daughter is not a nuanced individual in this play but rather acts as the catalyst for our “protagonist’s” realization that he was definitely shitty to more than a few women from his past, which goes on to foster the growing paranoia about his daughter growing up and meeting men who are just like him.
We also see this worrisome trend a lot in Hollywood, where male celebrities have famously come out to announce that the birth of their daughters has turned them into self-proclaimed feminists (I’m looking at you, Jay Z). It’s more than a little frustrating that some men can’t find the inspiration to be feminists by way of other women in their lives (i.e. their sisters, girlfriends, or the woman who literally gave birth to them) but that having a daughter can change their perspective so drastically. So, this tends to beg the question: is it because the event of childbirth itself is so transformative that it inspires all of these men to suddenly believe in the equality of the sexes that they become “feminists;” or is it due to an intensely possessive desire to never have their child (which is, essentially, a little part of themselves) treated the same way they (probably) grew up treating women?
Now, you may have noticed that throughout this review, in reference to secondary characters, I have mentioned the phrase “we are told” a few times. Daughter,by way of Lazarus and the controlled direction of Ann-Marie Kerr, incorporates an incredible usage of this concept we call the ‘unreliable narrator’ to almost subconsciously remind viewers that we are still, in fact, watching a play on stage and not listening to one man’s true life events. While the incendiary nature of the content can make it more than a little difficult to separate actor from character most times, if you’re quick, you can catch the cracks in this narrator’s facade when he nonchalantly mentions throughout the piece that he’s lying about one detail or another in his stories. Since this character feels the need to lie about something so seemingly insignificant like how often they visited a classmate in the hospital, it begs the question of what else could they be fudging the truth about. For example: Did that young woman actually ask the character to hit her during sex? Or did this character actually seek out therapy and follow through with treatment? As the play progresses, we grow less and less sure about how much we can actually trust our narrator which is a significant shift from how this character presents himself at the top of the show. The use of this dramaturgical device allows us to separate ourselves from the story and question the storyteller, and the creative team behind Daughter have really excelled at creating content that simultaneously inflames the emotions while allowing the brain to remain critical.
This is perhaps why other viewers have pointed out, quite aptly, that Daughter isn’t one man’s story or journey, but rather the presentation of a composite character that is both a reflection of and a comment on the various behaviours and mindsets that have become definitive of misogynists (and abusers) and the apparent struggles these individuals have trying to acclimatize to a society that is moving towards dismantling this patriarchal status quo. The link in all of these stories is, of course, the daughter and how the Father’s past experiences contribute to a confused and overly paranoid relationship between the two.
For example, when he talks about his extramarital affair with a 16 year old girl who was “looking for violence” and how he “rose to the occasion” (specifically by busting open her eye socket when she supposedly taunts him into hitting her in bed) we are given a glimpse of this very thinly veiled anger that seems to be always bubbling just underneath the surface and is almost always triggered by perceived threats to his masculinity. We see this anger resurface when trying to get his daughter to go back to sleep one night, when he uses his force of strength (i.e. forcibly pinning her back down into her bed by her shoulders) to emphasize his words. And we see it again take shape when he brutally assaults one of his friends after his friend physically separates their two children from a mild physical altercation. In the former case, it is not simply a matter of being a frustrated parent, but the deep seeded notion that the best way to control a woman is by physically overpowering her; and the latter represents the idea that the Father’s virility (and/or property) has been threatened by his male friend who uses his own “maleness” to overpower the Father’s daughter and remove her physically from the altercation with the other boy.
There’s an interesting op-ed in the New York Times by Michael Ian Black that has been circulating across social media channels in wake of the most recent school shootings in the United States called “The Boys Are Not Alright” that seems to articulate some of what Lazarus’ character is experiencing throughout the play. The major thesis at the heart of Black’s article is that boys “have been left behind. No commensurate movement has emerged to help them navigate toward a full expression of their gender” and, indeed, almost this exact same idea was posed as a question at the post-performance talk back. “Who are men supposed to look up to?”, one male audience member asked discussion moderators NAC’s Artistic Director Jillian Keiley and Feminist Theatre Scholar Kim Solga and although murmurs of approval coursed through the audience when Solga suggested Barack Obama, I think we were all aware that this issue runs far deeper than finding celebrity role models.
To be honest I wasn’t fully prepared for what I saw on stage that night and I don’t think I was alone in that boat. It seems very strange that there was no ‘content warning’ in the audience advisories section of the undercurrents festival program given that some of this content is extremely graphic and could be quite triggering for some. To me it suggests that “loud noises, loud music, and coarse language” are somehow more offensive than discussions of rape, sexual violence, and sex with minors. When the post-show discussion kicked off with the question “did this change your perspective on the men in your life?”, there was, in fact, a woman in the audience who was visibly upset and made a point to say that this was her first night out as a new mother and was also the first night she had left her child in the sole care of the baby’s father. Now, I don’t want to assume what she was feeling in this moment, but the play’s description feels a bit misleading in this sense given that it is so much more than a new father trying to reconcile his past “wild days” and when violence against women is used so often to boost ratings in mainstream media, for example, patrons should really be given the option (or at least a heads up) as to whether or not they’d like to engage with and/or support this content or not.
QuipTake and Pandemic Theatre have created a show that I haven’t stopped thinking about since I sat down in the NAC’s newly renovated Fourth Stage nearly 3 weeks ago now. It was difficult to find the words that would do justice to a production with such incredible performance value combined with provocative and controversial content (though necessary!) and I really wanted to speak to the bigger issues that I feel the creative team behind this show is trying to get at. More than anything though, I’ve been eager to know what feelings and/or thoughts this show brought up for other people: did it change your perspective of men? What was the most disturbing part in your opinion? And, how do we, both as individuals and as a collective, move forward? Though it might be the most uncomfortable 65 to 70 minutes you will ever sit through, Daughter is a most necessary theatrical experience.
Created by Adam Lazarus, Ann-Marie Kerr, Jivesh Parasram & Melissa D’Agostino
Written and performed by Adam Lazarus
Directed by Ann-Marie Kerr
Co-produced by QuipTake and Pandemic Theatre
Presented by NAC English Theatre
Presented as part of undercurrents, February 10, 2018