A Man Walks into a Bar’s appealing staging distracts from a heavy-handed script

Reviewed by Kat Fournier

Photo by Tanja Tiziana courtesy of the Next Stage Theatre Festival

Photo by Tanja Tiziana courtesy of the Next Stage Theatre Festival

A Man Walks into a Bar does a lot of things right. It was doubtlessly a popular offering during its premiere at the 2015 Toronto Fringe, where it received many awards including the coveted Best of Fest award. Now, during its run at the undercurrents festival until February 20, Ottawa audiences can experience a play that wields humour like a weapon. Produced by Circle Circle Productions in Toronto, the play takes its lead from the popular kicking-off point of a joke, “A man walks into a bar.” But as the two actors approach the punch-line, the joke unfolds into a metatheatrical and cutting story that sets its sights on misogyny and harassment.

Created by Rachel Blair, who is also one of two actors in this performance, the script pulls its audience into two worlds. Blair has arrived to tell the audience a joke, and insists, “I’m not very good at telling jokes.” Performer Bigwood-Mallin convinces her that they should step inside the joke; he only wants to help. A small bar and two barstools allow them to clearly indicate when they are within the sketch, and when they are outside of it. The actors straddle these two worlds, and as Blair’s “joke” starts to reveal its true nature, a growing tension permeates both the play within the play, and their metatheatrical narration.

Approaching a gender discussion under the guise of humour, A Man Walks into a Bar gives its audience the opportunity to laugh its way through discomfort. What’s more, Blair as the Waitress and narrator was able to be genuinely funny and then genuinely sincere, making these turns on a dime. It’s convincing, and showcases Blair’s versatility as an actress. Bigwood-Mallin as “the Man” and the co-narrator also manages to strike a balance being obtuse, funny, and loathsome in turn. Here, the audience can also see David Matheson’s handy work who orchestrates swift staging between moments of outright cruelty before they swept under the rug and the “joke” regains its footing.

The issue arises with the balance of the script. There are a couple early bread-crumbs that reveal the true nature of Blair and Bigwood-Mallin’s relationship, and by their second meeting at the bar, Bigwood-Mallin openly gaslights and then bullies Blair. The audience knows what to expect early on, and from there the production panders to one’s sense of disgust, handing its audience recognizable MRA pull-quotes, encouraging us to gasp, jeer and laugh at Bigwood-Mallin’s character. It is practically Roman amphitheatre, spurring its audience to get angry at this grim antagonist. Bigwood-Mallin’s character even references the fact that he is too one-dimensional, and as co-narrator, he attempts to “humanize” his character within their shared sketch. The addition to the script makes him even more repugnant.

The play does lead its audience to a final catharsis—quite literally a moment of pity and fear just before the stage fades to black, but the journey to that point is heavy-handed. The play lingers on the concept of how context can impact one’s fear, how misogyny can be insidious, and types of violence that aren’t overt, and yet, the male role is conceived as the exact opposite: He is opportunistic, lacking self-awareness, and openly aggressive. The script loops back and refers to this as a “normal guy”, but really, he’s a kind of culmination of all of our anxieties as feminists and as women.

That this play occurred at Arts Court Theatre, where the international faction of infamous Roosh V’s misogynist “neo-masculinist” following recently flagged as a potential meeting ground does not escape me. A happy happenstance, A Man Walks into a Bar becomes a stake in a ground, and even a political moment. What the script lacks in subtlety, Blair and Bigwood-Mallin make up for with their palpable chemistry on stage. A worthwhile trip the theatre for this affecting production.

 

Playing at the undercurrents festival until February 20.

A Circle Circle Production
Created by Rachel Blair
Performed by Blue Bigwood-Mallin and Rachel Blair
Directed by David Matheson


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