Sensitive Guys – The witness as complicit in narrative. (Theatre Review)

Sensitive Guys

Cross Pollinate Productions with JackRabbit Theatre

KXT 30 April to 11 May. You can grab your tickets here.

The 1968 May revolution events in France are used today by many academics as a symbol of a specifically post-modern revolution. The unrest began with a series of student occupation protests against capitalism, consumerism, American imperialism and traditional institutions values and order. It was an ideological riling against the failure of modern science and philosophy (liberalism, social science, reason and so on) to remedy problems of war, poverty and intolerance. It led to cultural revolutions such as British Punk and the riling against censorship laws in the 70’s that demanded ‘niceties’ be removed from society because of the intolerance they harbored and protected. It is easy to believe, in the current political climate that this revolution has been a disastrous failure.

Examining this very issue, MJ Kaufman produces Sensitive Guys. This piece of writing is a nothing short of brilliant diagnosis, in the explosive microcosm of the university, of the complexities arising from the process of untangling misogyny, patriarchy and the everyday horrific violence perpetrated upon women. Embedded in the play itself are the problems associated with this work that produce an overwhelming invisibility that render women’s voices mute. MJ Kaufman cleverly makes gender identification fluid, which gives us the opportunity to ‘see’ identifiable narratives upturned at the point of delivery. Immediately obvious is ‘women playing men’ that occurs when the actors identifying as female (in a powerhouse first scene change) change clothing and behavior to become male, and perform male roles. We ‘see’ male behavior differently because it is delivered by someone we ‘know’ to be female. Even more interesting, when the actors change ‘back’ into women, their narrative is enhanced by their previously being ‘men.’ This enormously clever conceit immediately reveals our essential sanctioning of, in this instance, rape culture, as ‘witness.’ By successfully transforming the gender identification of the actors, MJ Kaufman teaches us about ourselves.

This device is delivered with greater success by these five actors than I would have understood to be possible. Besides the obvious (great writing and excellent performances) it becomes observable to us that the theatre scene change lends itself to a legitimate recognition of transformation. In the parameters of the theater, we expect a wooden tree to replace a wooden door and we are outside instead of inside. We hear rain and see a wet actor and ‘know’ they have been outside in a storm. MJ Kaufman uses this as a kind of training to reveal to the audience that the microcosm of the actors on the stage, playing at university students, playing at men, playing at life, is a metatheatre drama where life is the play within a play and the witness is she who cements narrative. As we observe the perpetually exasperating cycle of just ‘seeing women’ we successfully recognize ourselves as complicit in the formation of all narratives. It is not for nothing that the law requires witnesses to corroborate narrative. They are the last word in all things. No one is more important than the audience.

In this one particular move, MJ Kaufman successfully reveals the narrative fluidity of all societal constructs and the overwhelming importance of becoming a ‘good witness.’ The crushing difficulty of hearing and seeing the five women in the play continues to be born out in the men’s ability to appropriate narrative, such that we leave wondering what we are to ‘do’ with the men? When Leslie reports The Crime at the start of the play (beautifully performed by Alex Malone) her only request is that she be allowed to study in a separate room from her perpetrator. For women this is called a ‘safe space,’ a term we are all familiar with as witnesses. As always, this basic request is refused. It is almost as offensive that a woman asks to left alone as it is when she makes an accusation of rape. The basic request of woman is always the same – can I be left in peace please? It is perpetrators and witnesses who distort this request and malform it into a political action, to which a woman is bullied into self-defense. Defense, of course, removes her from completing projects that might be in her own interest.

Sensitive Guys is a superb piece of theatre, elegantly executed by Cross Pollinate Productions. It’s a powerhouse addition to Jackrabbits ‘take over the KXT’ season, rising to a suitable climax across their curatorial trajectory. Cross Polinate’s mantra is “your story is safe with us” and it couldn’t be more accurate. This challenging play is brought to its potent fullness by director Blazey Best who calls forth engrossing performances from an excellent cast. She is assisted in her efforts by assistant director Emma Caldwell and stage manager Christopher Starnawski. Simple yet powerfully evocative production design by Siobhàn Jett O’Hanlon and overall production by Michael Wood infuse the experience with a polished touch. Very clever lighting design by Sophie Pekbilimli and elegant sound design from Clare Hennessy complete Blazey Best’s vision for this important work.

However, this is one of those productions where everything hinges on the performances, and Blazey Best has put together a powerful team who give the exciting production its knock out punch. Samm Ward, Shell McKenzie, Natasha Cheng, Nancy Denis and Alex Malone work with their multiple characters and therefore multiple personas extraordinarily well. This is an intricate, deeply clever piece of writing and these five women are more than up to presenting each character and their shadows with great skill. Alter ego’s are connected through alliteration and perspective and this is successfully drawn out in thorough performances that deliver what is ultimately an important realisation for the audience.

Sensitive Guys is more than a political piece of theatre, but it’s a potent addition to that genre, if such a thing should or does exist. A wonderful experience in self-reflective abilities of theatre, this is a must see addition to KXT’s very successful Jackrabbit season.