BATS Theatre, The Heyday Dome, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
11/08/2017 - 19/08/2017
MEN’S RIGHTS ACTIVISTS SATIRISED IN ALLFEMALE ORIGINAL MUSICAL
After the huge success of Yellow Face in March this year, Red Scare Theatre Company now turns to a satirical allsinging, all-dancing look at men’s rights activism and pick up artistry for their second production of 2017. M’Lady, written by Cassandra Tse and James Cain with music by Michael Stebbings, was shortlisted for Playmarket’s Playwrights b4 25 competition and is to be staged at BATS Theatre in early August.
The production stars Aimee Smith, Jayne Grace, Karen Anslow, Freya Van Alphen Fyfe, Greer Phillips and Marysia Collins and is directed by Cassandra Tse.
“M’Lady started as a joke idea – a musical about pick up artists! – but James and I soon found that we couldn’t let go of it,” says Tse. “Something about the image of a row of fedora-tipping softshoe dancers doing a pastiche of A Chorus Line was too ridiculous not to turn into a proper show.”
“We wanted to create something fun and progressive to show how truly absurd this subculture is” says co-writer Cain, “so we thought, why not be critical of toxic masculinity and have singing and dancing at the same time?”
Jayne Grace, who plays head pick up artist G. Thomas Poole, was desperate to audition, “I’m sick of feeling outnumbered and frustrated when I get into online arguments with meninists and their sympathisers; they’re unbound by reason, verified data and human empathy. M’Lady is a chance to point out the ridiculousness of meninists and have a good laugh at their expense.”
Red Scare’s casting concept was clear from the very start. Director Tse is “interested in the subversive potential of cross-gender casting and drag, and how having our characters, who are often grossly sexist individuals, played by women or non-binary actors adds a layer of commentary to their actions.”
The pair have collaborated with Michael Stebbings, with whom Tse worked previously on Long Ago Long Ago, where she was nominated for Outstanding New Playwright and Best New NZ Play at the Wellington Theatre Awards and Stebbings was nominated for Best Composition.
“I’m so thrilled to be working with Red Scare again” says Stebbings. “Writing music for an all female cast playing all-male characters was an intriguing challenge and I’ve loved giving each song their own unique style and flavour.”
“Michael’s music is ridiculously catchy,” says Cain. “The whole show started to feel real once he came on board.” Tse agrees, “I think it’s impossible to overstate just how ambitious this project is – it’s an original two act musical with something like twenty discrete musical numbers.”
M’Lady also reunites Red Scare with Costume Designer Lisa Kiyomoto-Fink. Together they’re working to source the most extravagant array of hats available. “There’s a lot of fedoras to source and pick-up-artists go all out with accessories. But don’t worry, we’ll get these ladies ‘peacocking’ in no time”.
M’Lady premieres at BATS Theatre
in The Heyday Dome
10th-19th August 2017
(Preview 10th August)
Tickets are $15 for concession, $20 for Full Price or $18 for Preview (10th August).
Aimee Smith as Elliot
Jayne Grace as G
Karen Anslow as Al and Nemesis
Freya Van Alphen Fyfe as Adrian
Greer Phillips as Kurt
Marysia Collins as Fleischman
Book & Lyrics – Cassandra Tse & James Cain
Music & Additional Lyrics – Michael Stebbings
Director – Cassandra Tse
Music Director – Michael Stebbings
Choreography – Natasha Sime
Costume Designer - Lisa Kiyomoto-Fink
Set Designer - Ben Emerson
Lighting Designer - Michael Trigg
Production Manager – James Cain
Stage Manager - Madeleine Warren
Theatre , Musical ,
Offbeat approach highly entertaining
Review by Ewen Coleman 16th Aug 2017
Exploring the idea of how guys pick up girls and improve the way they do it is not new, but when it is girls playing the guys that are doing the pick up, the changed dynamics adds some interesting twists to what is often stereotypical perceptions.
And in M’Lady, a new original musical directed by Cassandra Tse with musical direction by Michael Stebbings, this very cleverly plays out through a simple but effective story line with catchy tunes and bouncy dance routines. [More]
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
A poignant, even affectionate, exposé of male vulnerability
Review by John Smythe 12th Aug 2017
The clue is in the title, although My Bad Man might be a fairer representation. Billed as “A Meninist Musical”, M’Lady uses a Pygmalion plot to satirise New Zealand’s masculine archetypes (rather than Britain’s class system).
In Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, Pickering accepts Higgins’ wager that he can pass Eliza, a common flower girl with a thick cockney accent, off as a duchess in a matter of months. In M’lady the bet is that ‘nice guy loser’ Elliot can be transformed “from schmuck to skux” in just one week. In both cases, Eliza and Elliot ask their big-noting tutors to train them: it is they who feel the need to improve their own prospects.
Inverting Freddie’s love for Eliza, Elliot is in love with Freda. They have just seen Crash Bandicoot the Movie together but her real boyfriend, Dan, prefers Nora Ephron movies. So we’re not into ‘gross machismo v sweet and gentle’ male stereotypes here. Nevertheless it is because Elliott doesn’t understand why he’s been relegated to the ‘Friend Zone’ yet again that he is susceptible to G Thomas Poole’s claim that, as a graduate of The National Institute of Masculinity, he can make Elliot ‘Better than Beta’ by changing him into an Alpha male. It is G’s loyal friend Adrian who lays the bet.
In order not to add to the ‘more roles for men’ syndrome, creators Cassandra Tse and James Cain (book and lyrics) developed M’Lady with a clear casting concept. As the media release tells, us Director Tse is “interested in the subversive potential of cross-gender casting and drag, and how having our characters, who are often grossly sexist individuals, played by women or non-binary actors adds a layer of commentary to their actions.”
In this low-budget premiere, then, women are represented by limbless and headless tailors’ dummies – except for Freda, who gets to be a shop window mannequin in the opening scene.
This is not a ‘drag king’ show, however (see Tomboi: Laugh Your Bits Off); we are spared the gross, predatory, sexist so-called jokes Cathie Sheat’s Al Dente served up in this year’s Hen’s Teeth at the WTF!. Nor are we challenged by the uncomfortably charismatic masculinity of Alexander Sparrow’s How to Pick Up Women or its spinoff, Enigma.
M’Lady brings an entirely different aesthetic to its critique of the pickup artist (pua) and meninist (men’s rights activist) subcultures. Despite its website claim to be a “savagely satirical musical extravaganza” what comes through is a poignant exposé of male ineptitude in their quest to find love or get laid.
Aimee Smith’s Elliot (aka El) is a very engaging lost soul who makes us care, the more so because he turns for advice to G who, for all his blokey bluster, is soon revealed – in Jayne Grace’s manifestation – to be as vulnerable as the next person. As for Adrian, Freya Van Alphen Fyfe lays some intriguing clues as to what motivates his loyalty.
El’s backstory is revealed in scenes with his dad, Al (cf: Alfred P Doolittle) who – separated from his wife/ El’s mother – is now, like Ol (his dad, Oliver) before him, wedded to his La-Z-Boy and the Rugby Channel. Karen Anslow also finds the pathos in Al – whose final song about blame (‘Picture a Man’) is touchingly insightful.
Even G’s pua hero, Nemesis – played with appropriate swagger by Karen Anslow – is revealed as more pathetic than powerful, as are his meninist followers Fleischman (Marysia Collins) and Kurt (Greer Phillips). And Collins and Phillips’ render rugby commentators Roger and Jim as rather sweetly limited specimens of manhood.
The central quest is for Elliot to master his signature pick up ruse. I have a feeling that as the show plays in, the scenes that dramatise this will become more comically cringe-worthy than they are on opening night. Towards the end, without the chatted-up women there to add tension and resistance to the competitors’ antics, the ‘pick up off’ challenge to score the most names and phone numbers is less dramatic, let alone climactic, than it might be.
Michael Stebbings has composed 14 eminently singable songs, adding to Tse and Cain’s cleverly crafted lyrics. There are musical references aplenty, not just to My Fair Lady, with ‘She’ being a clear pastiche of ‘One’ from A Chorus Line. In after show chat aficionados name-check a number of other shows too. The scene where G accuses Nemesis of plagiarism signals this production is playfully self-aware.
Is there room, I wonder, for a number that packs more testosterone, referencing Stomp perhaps? Or is wanting that to misunderstand the whole premise of the casting?
In the small but perfectly formed band, stage right, Stebbings (clarinet, tenor saxophone, piano) is joined by Stephen Clothier (piano, violin), Bernadette Stander (upright and electric bass) and Felix Nesbitt (percussion). From where I sit in the BATS Dome space, the unamplified singing voices fare very well in the musical mix. One cannot help but wonder, however, how much more light and shade could be achieved with radio mics and a fully resourced sound mix.
The choreography (Natasha Sime) is pretty basic and well enough executed; the costumes (Lisa Kiyomoto-Fink), with a special emphasis on hats, make clear character statements; the wall-of-posters set (Ben Emerson), as lit by Michael Trigg, draws particular pre-show attention to Scott Pilgrim, The Hobbit and Pulp Fiction – make of that what you will.
When the denouement plays out in shadow and soft silhouette (we only find out later that this is because the lighting desk ‘crashed’) everyone carries on regardless, incorporating the gloom as if is intended. It is a testament to our trust and willing investment in the show that I and those around me earnestly rationalise why this effect is included.
Considering all the key creative personnel are under 25 (M’Lady was a finalist in Playmarket’s ‘Playwrights b425 competition’ this year) we have cause to celebrate the emergence of talents setting themselves such an ambitious challenge. While there are clear values in M’Lady retaining its lo-tech ‘chamber musical’ charm, it is inevitable that consideration will be given to its potential on a bigger stage – the Hannah Playhouse, for example – with amplified singing voices and some ‘big boot’ choreography.
I’m guessing (and am happy to be corrected on this) that an unintended consequence of the casting convention has been the discovery of a level of compassion for men that has moderated the original intention to mount a “savage satire”. As it stands, M’Lady comes across – to me, anyway – as an affectionate exposé of male vulnerability.
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