Typically mansplaining has zero benefit to the female population. However, witnessing the act of a man explaining something to a woman, in a condescending and patronizing manner, AKA mansplaining, in a theatre setting does create a platform to deconstruct everyday sexism.
A Man Walks Into a Bar, presented at the Next Stage Theatre Festival is the perfect feminist remedy for an imperfect and male-oriented service industry. Written and performed by Rachel Blair, the play is a complex hour of cringe-worthy (because of the parallels to reality) goodness.
Rachel Blair gleefully announces that she is going to tell a joke to a man (played by Blue Bigwood-Mallin). Within seconds of beginning to tell the joke, Blair is interrupted by the man who asks for numerous irrelevant details. What is this “man” like? Average? Why does she assume he is average?
At first, the banter is likened to a When Harry Met Sally scene. The man and woman engage in mild flirting and start to reenact the woman’s joke. Blair settles in as the role of the waitress, playing to the many quirks surrounding the service industry. She appears as a typical waitress who is able to riddle off a long list of draft beer and accurately describe what category restaurant “guests” fall under. The man takes up the role of the guest.
The plot rapidly gains a darker tone as power dynamics shift. Tensions build and the man becomes a little more assertive in his advances. Blair’s sarcastic vocal inflection forces the audience to sympathize with her irritation, but not fully dismiss the man as a jerk. Despite his pushiness, Bigwood-Mallin appears to mean well. He comes across as a clueless bachelor -- someone you would easily label as “harmless.”
A few red-flag moments quickly start to pop up and the man’s self-serving agenda becomes unsettling. In one scene, the man smiles as he demands to see Blair in her highly-sexualized work uniform. After great hesitation, an objectified and humiliated Blair gives in and changes. She takes a full two minutes for the wardrobe switch, all the while heading the action in complete silence. Blair does a courageous job at showcasing how violence takes many forms and how many aspects and examples of violence against women are rendered invisible.
The man does not consciously acknowledge Blair’s dismay; moreover, the man does not even understand his actions to be anything but dismissible. This man, like so many before him, does not recognize his position of power, where it is acceptable to exercise domineering behaviour. In so much as the man listening to the joke is privileged to appropriate and reconstruct the woman’s joke, the male character Blair speaks of has the unearned advantage to justify his advances based on his financial contribution to the waitress while labelling the woman as complacent to her degradation.
The dark irony of the man’s words works as a powerful source of social commentary within the play.
The joke spirals out of control as the man uses the reenactment as an opportunity to ask the woman out. When he is rejected, he is immediately angered and writes off the waitress and Blair as having a major character flaw.
Throughout the play, Blair is able to provide a realistic take on how women handle these types of situations. These points are sure to resonate with any young female audience member who has felt pressured to give an explanation after they have said no to something that they should be able to freely say no to (should being the key word).
The writing for this scene is incredibly introspective. For instance, at one point the man informs Blair that the waitress should have just lied and told the customer that she had a boyfriend. The sad reality of shaming women like that extends far beyond the walls of the theatre.
An honourable mention goes out to Bigwood-Mallin, whose powerful delivery is able to deconstruct layer after layer of interrelated barriers and forces that immobilize Blair. His role has the potential to get a little confusing as I almost interpreted it as a split role between listener and actor in Blair’s joke. Bigwood-Mallin paces his dialogue exceedingly well and complements the play by portraying one of the most disliked but relatable characters. The unsettling and obvious irony in his words and actions caused many of the audience members to audibly groan and anxiously fidget in their seats.
A Man Walks Into a Bar is a must see show for anyone who advocates for the equality of the sexes and also for anyone who has confused a double bind with an autonomous decision.
Directed by David Matheson and presented by Circle Circle, A Man Walks Into a Bar is playing at the Next Stage Theatre Festival until Jan. 17. For more information visit http://fringetoronto.com/next-stage-festival/listings/a-man-walks-into-a-bar/.