Review: LELA & Co.

by Lynn on September 25, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Cordelia Lynn
Directed by Melissa-Jane Shaw
Scenographer, Claire Hill
Lighting by Jazz Kamal
Sound by Verne Good
Cast: Graham Cuthbertson
Jenna Harris

A hard-hitting play about sexual enslavement that becomes annoying with its repetition and lopsided sense of self-righteousness.

The Story. An unnamed woman tells us she will tell the truth about her story. She begins in childhood when her short-tempered father berates her for eating her own birthday cake herself. When he isn’t making fun of her, he laughs at her irreverence to have eaten the whole thing. She has biting comments about her sister only named with a letter “L”. Her brother-in-law is “J”. “J” is a confident businessman, smart dresser, wears sunglasses for effect and knows how sexually charged he is when he’s in the company of his teenaged sister-in-law. He introduces her to a friend and fellow businessman from over the border. The friend and the teen marry. Unbeknownst to her it was a business deal with the brother-in-law. He got money for her.

The teen is taken away from her village and family to a place across the border. The husband is brutal. War is imminent. The husband’s business is in trouble so he creates a more lucrative business: selling his wife for sex to all comers.

The Production
. Director Melissa-Jane Shaw has created a harrowing production. The audience since around Claire Hill’s square set. It represents the platform on which the woman addresses us. With a sheet on it it becomes her bed. She is obsessive about keeping it clean and neat after every ‘encounter’ with a customer, but after time with so many men, it’s impossible. Melissa-Jane Shaw’s staging is forceful. As the woman Jenna Harris simulates being thrown on the ‘bed’, being pinned, raped, flipped over, and left panting and stunned with the indignity of it all. And they she goes through the process again and again. The staging is in your-face-brutal. Shaw stages this with urgency, power and a grip that often makes one want to look away, but we don’t.

Melissa-Jane Shaw is careful to incorporate all sides of the theatre. In only two cases am I not able to see a bit of business—in one vital one, with the young girl on his lap, the brother-in-law gives her something to suck. With both his and her backs to me I am not sure what it is. I assume it’s a lollipop. Not being able to see that properly is frustrating. For the most part though, the audience sees from all sides what is intended to see.

Playing many male parts, Graham Cuthbertson is nuanced and varied. He’s the girl’s loud, boisterous father; her cool, sophisticated sexual brother-in-law; the cold-eyed, mean, brutal, soft-spoken husband and a sweet-natured, awkward Canadian peace-keeping soldier who is one of her customers.

Comment. This is one angry, brutal play. It’s obvious that it takes place in some war-torn country, what with the references to being taken across the border completely away from her family. The accent of the father and the almost formal way the husband speaks one assumes this takes place elsewhere and not here. That does not diminish the brutality of the piece.

When she finds her way home the young woman is shunned because of what happened to her. There is no compassion in this play. The men are all of a type: either physical bullies rapists, or kindly but ineffectual when it comes to helping her. The young teen is innocent, unable to protect herself, and yet resilient in a cruel world.

I also thought of echoes of Boko Haram, the terrorist group that kidnapped 200 girls and teenagers and raped them, releasing some who went home and were rejected by their families as ‘unclean’, never mind how they were brutalized.

Playwright Cordelia Lynn has the woman repeat herself too often, thus weakening the play. The woman tells us again and again that she will try to tell the truth. I wonder what is the difficulty in doing it? It’s not as if she has to lie about it. She has a willing, understanding audience so what is so hard about telling the truth? The repetition grates and soon becomes annoying, if not disingenuous. And at times the play sounds self-righteous. Of course what is happening in the world to defenceless women is despicable. Of course we are outraged that in some quarters it is perfectly normal for a husband to treat his wife as property, or any man to take physical advantage of a woman. The play gives a graphic picture of a situation we could figure out.

So while producing it is well-intentioned the play is preaching to the converted when it plays at an accommodating theatre, full of compassionate, committed people. The play should be done for an audience that needs it: in prisons to sex offenders for example, men who think women are property to be punished and brutalized with they are not accommodating.

It seems almost churlish to be critical of a play and production that wants so badly to make an important statement. It’s just that we read about these hideous events in graphic detail in our newspapers. The tone of the play; the lopsidedness of it (men are bad, women are victims) and it’s reverential sensibility diminish it’s effectiveness.

Discord and Din Theatre in association with Seventh Stage Productions present:

Opened: Sept. 22, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 8, 2017.
Running Time: 100 minutes.

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.