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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Art breaks the biological ceiling, preps you for life again

20 November 2015

I have always been a patron (matron?) of the arts, and a special scout of my city's local theatre scene.
Nothing better than a city's arts and culture diaries to reflect the moods and passions of its citizenry, to feel at one with the community, the moment. Now to be air-locked in a little black box for ninety odd minutes without intermission can seem to be trying without an aisle seat, but theatre is no aeroplane, it's only promise to offer limbs to the imagination.

Recently, I watched Menopause, the musical at The Gladstone theatre on that eponymous quaint lane off Preston, the spine of Ottawa's Little Italy. My ticket came with an invitation to a Happy Hour at the theatre's Mood Swing Lounge that served themed drinks like Estro-Gin & Tonic, Memory Loss- Meno Shots, Mood Swing Martinis and Menosposlitians. I arrived 30 minutes early to a crowd of fifty-nine shades of women in communitas, and realized I might have a lot more in common with those greying ladies than I thought: like "independence" (going alone) or forgetfulness (forgetting to draw cash from the ATM for example).


"We only take cash, not debit!" exclaimed the waitress on seeing my card.


We were quickly interceded by a neighbourly lady who swooped in on our predicament, already stuffing notes into the waitress' hands, "Here let me get this for you," she said, "I remember those days!" with a chuckle, firmly suggesting she had worked her way up to this position of (menopausal?) generosity. I could only accept graciously. 


When everyone was seated, the male producer (also of presumably menopausal age) and emcee asked the audience, "When was the last time you had a hot flash?"


A lot of loud cackling challenged the room's acoustics. 

"Which of you would be brave enough, kind enough, to come up on stage to tell us your favourite hot flash story?" he asked. 


Silence. 


"There's a prize!" he promised, pulling out what resembled a mouse, but was not. "See this nifty device called a MENOPOD? You just have to mouse-over your face and body and feel cool instantly!"


A woman in the first row mounted the stage and grabbed his mike, "I was in a meeting of the board of directors, and suddenly my hot flash crept up. My hair was soaked and I was boiling. I had to bolt out of the room, and the other members looked at me like I was crazy walking out on them without so much as an excuse me. It was so hot, I just had to get out. That's all."


Applause followed, and to her amusement she was handed the Menopod. The emcee thanked her and announced that more menopause merchandise was available for sale after the show. 


The musical kicked off to a cheering audience. 


A corporate woman, a soapstar, an Earth Mother and an Iowa housewife unite over their bewilderment with "the change" in their lives as they battle for the last piece of black-laced lingerie in a shopping mall. Witch catchy songs like "my personal summer is a bummer," and others to reference their flashes, flaring moods, amnesia, sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, pill-dependence, and their life-transforming, life-affirming, halt at menopause, the foursome bond over song and dance at their regular girlie-meets. 



End of the show was an interactive clap-dance with the actors and the only time cameras were allowed
By turns funny, awkward and moving, the play pleasantly weaves together the anecdotes of their changed womanhood, fading self-confidence in their relevance to society, the workplace and loved ones. They emerge stronger, battling their beasts together in this chummy, down-to-earth musical. The play struck a chord with the community, drawing both familiar and estranged laughs from a grateful audience. 

As if in a chain reaction, I booked another show at the Centrepointe Theatre for the next week's show of Next to Normal, a Tony and Pulitzer prize winning drama about mental illness. Trenchant and stark, the play dispenses myths about mental illness through the lens of a middle class suburban family, especially its loving and turbulent couple, reminding us that the mind is the most fragile place, and protecting it (nourishing it) is a life's work. Proceeds from this tragicomic performance went to the Royal Hospital of Ottawa, renowned for its work in the mental health department. This proved to be another successful outing that had acted as temporary deterrent to a freshly acquired vampire cold. 


The subsequent Friday, to distract myself from the fate of a job interview, I treated myself to Adventures of a Black Girl in search of God at the National Arts Centre. The title was inspired by what director Djanet Sears calls "a disappointing George Bernard Shaw play" about an Irishman who saves a black girl in search of god. Sears' musical is rooted in West African art as she deploys a 14-piece a capella ancestor chorus to recast God (as female). Rainey Baldwin Johnson, a single independent black woman is still haunted by her daughter's death in infancy and shaped by her dead ancestors (chorus) of Negro Creek, African soldiers and veterans of the 1812 war in Upper Canada. Her omnipresent ancestors are a reminder that the past is always an inheritance and blessing. Fueled by the gender and racial inequalities of the Civil War era, the story is a dazzling and soulful ode to Rainney's perseverance for justice as she come to terms with her love and genesis.


To round off my November, in the wake of all the bombings and crises continents away, I watched The December Man inspired by the real tragedy of the 1989 Montreal Massacre, about a serial shooter who broke into a school's classroom and separating the men and women, in his attempt to "fight feminism" killed 14 men and shot 28 people before committing suicide. The play is a haunted recollection of a lone survivor's tortured memories and his family's attempts to fight his guilt and trauma from the tragedy in retrospect.  


There were talk-tables at the end of the play to help members who did not want to leave immediately to talk through their uneasiness or even revisit key moments from the play in discussion with fellow members. It was an interesting opportunity to discover levels of interest and engagement among audience members in terms of how they perceived history or art in the current moment, not in a manner of judgment but simply as an observed consequence of the warring lives within so many of us every single day. 


All four pre-winter musicals reaffirmed my faith in the theatre as a celebration of life and a collective imagination again. I am ever thankful for Ottawa's vibrant theatre scene for these soul and community binding experiences. Each play was timely and enriching, especially as I knew soon I would not have the time or appetite for such grand and grandmotherly exploits as I was fast becoming embroiled in the theatre of Life. 


If you're wondering what's a good winter production to get to, please don't miss FREEZING! I won't be watching it, but I hope others interested in some strong local theatre will.