A pri­vate in­ci­dent on a pub­lic stage

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - GLOBE LIFE & ARTS - REVIEWED BY J. KELLY NESTRUCK

Ask­ing For It Writ­ten by El­lie Moon Di­rected by Bren­dan Healy Star­ring El­lie Moon, Chris­tine Horne, Steven McCarthy and Jaa Smith-John­son Crow’s Theatre, Toronto

Around the time that Jian Ghome­shi was fired from the CBC and ac­cu­sa­tions of sex­ual as­sault be­gan to swirl around the ra­dio host, play­wright and ac­tress El­lie Moon was liv­ing in Eng­land and see­ing a guy who owned a T-shirt em­bla­zoned with the slo­gan, “This is what a fem­i­nist looks like.”

One night, dur­ing sex, that guy – who she calls Jack in her new play Ask­ing For It – put his fore­arm over her neck and choked her.

She’s not sure what to call what hap­pened in that moment. The two are still friends.

Ask­ing For It, which is at Crow’s Theatre this month in a co-pro­duc­tion with Night­wood Theatre and Nec­es­sary An­gel, fol­lows Moon on a jour­ney to try to un­der­stand this pri­vate in­ci­dent in the light of the pub­lic scan­dal.

It’s a doc­u­men­tary play based on tran­scripts, but a very per­sonal one in which her in­ves­ti­ga­tion grows out nat­u­rally from her life as a young artist.

She talks to friends at bars, ac­tors on a film set and a hair­styl­ist.

While this ap­proach to the sub­ject mat­ter has its draw­backs, it also al­lows for un­usu­ally can­did and in­ti­mate con­ver­sa­tions to be pre­sented on a stage.

With Moon play­ing her­self in a four-ac­tor pro­duc­tion and in­tro­duc­ing each new in­ter­view with di­rect ad­dress, there’s al­most a Car­rie Bradshaw feel to the pro­ceed­ings.

Moon seems most in­ter­ested, or at least seems to think an au­di­ence would be most in­ter­ested, in the con­ver­sa­tions she had that veered into grey zones when it comes to con­sent – a taboo idea in and of it­self.

An in­ter­view with a woman who is a sur­vivor of child­hood sex­ual abuse who finds the #IBelieveWomen fem­i­nism re­duc­tive is star­tling.

“I just don’t know when pro­tect­ing women ends and in­fan­tiliz­ing women be­gins,” she says.

» Moon’s other fe­male in­ter­view sub­jects range from her 16-year-old sis­ter (on the sub­ject of BDSM) to an old friend from com­mu­nity theatre who is now work­ing as a strip­per (and who is fas­ci­nated by how many men go to strip clubs to say no to women).

Chris­tine Horne, in a won­der­ful nat­u­ral and un­adorned per­for­mance, plays all the girls and women, while two male ac­tors – Steven McCarthy and Jaa SmithJohn­son – play all the men that Moon talked with.

It’s an in­ter­est­ing con­trast – they make short, stac­cato ap­pear­ances that feel like cameos, while Horne has the mono­logues and long scenes.

This is just an ex­pres­sion of the re­al­ity Moon found when broach­ing the sub­ject of con­sent with friends and strangers. While women seem ea­ger to talk about the times men they were with crossed a line and the dif­fi­cul­ties they’ve had ex­press­ing their dis­com­fort, it was harder for the play­wright to find men will­ing to talk un­guard­edly, even with the prom­ise of anonymity.

What she finds is a wide gap – be­tween stri­dent men such as a 27-year-old po­lice of­fi­cer who calls him­self a “guy who ar­gues with fem­i­nists” and men who say what they think she wants to hear in con­ver­sa­tions she’s deemed too bor­ingly po­lit­i­cal cor­rect to stage.

A fas­ci­nat­ing scene comes when Moon talks to just such a sen­si­tive male friend – and, af­ter he’s left the bar, a fe­male friend tells her of the time she slept in a bed next to him and woke up to him phys­i­cally forc­ing him­self upon her. Moon calls this rape; her friend says she’s never thought of it as any­thing other than “awk­ward.”

What did the guy in ques­tion think hap­pened? Ask­ing For It is, in a way, a drama­ti­za­tion of the frus­trat­ing lim­its of the con­ver­sa­tion that was opened up by the Ghome­shi af­fair. Women spoke out; men clammed up. You see a sim­i­lar thing hap­pen­ing with the case of Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer Har­vey We­in­stein.

In its own way, Ask­ing For It demon­strates the need for drama to tackle cer­tain cor­ners of mod­ern life, the places fic­tion can reach that doc­u­men­tary can’t.

The strength of Moon’s piece, how­ever, is that it’s al­ways aware of when it’s hit­ting walls. A cou­ple of scenes in which men try to se­duce the play­wright – one is suc­cess­ful, one is not – are in­ter­est­ing in that they al­low us to pon­der the dis­tinc­tion be­tween se­duc­tion and co­er­cion, but also be­cause they ex­tend the con­cept of con­sent to the form of doc­u­men­tary theatre. Did these scenes re­ally hap­pen while Moon was record­ing the au­dio on her smart­phone?

Bren­dan Healy’s di­rec­tion is art­ful: The four ac­tors be­gin by sit­ting around a ta­ble in front of scripts and mi­cro­phones, like four ra­dio hosts com­pet­ing to be the next host of q. Later, Healy plays gen­tly with these con­ven­tions, but gen­er­ally keeps us lis­ten­ing, the am­pli­fied sound cre­at­ing the in­ti­macy of a pod­cast. I felt the whole thing could have been edited more tightly, but then I feel that way about most pod­casts as well.

Ask­ing for It con­tin­ues to Oct. 21 (night­woodthe­atre.net)

JEREMY MIMNAGH

From left: El­lie Moon, Jaa Smith-John­son and Chris­tine Horne in ap­pear in Moon’s play, Ask­ing For It. The show, based on tran­scripts of Moon’s talks with peo­ple about the sub­ject of con­sent, is a drama­ti­za­tion of the frus­trat­ing lim­its of the con­ver­sa­tion opened up by the Jian Ghome­shi af­fair.

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