Stage Door Review 2019
Monday, April 29, 2019
by Thea Fitz-James, directed by Shanda Bezic
TMI Productions, Fringe Encore, Arts Club Theatre, Ottawa
April 26-27, 2019
“You don’t bro ice a friend”
The poster for Thea Fitz-James’s play Drunk Girl shows Fitz-James as an attractive young woman trying to put on lipstick with vomit still on her chin and the front of her dress. That image of a young woman trying to look attractive despite a repulsive event is an excellent summation of Fitz-James’s complex response to the complex signals society gives women about drinking. On the one hand, feminism urges women to prove they are equal to men which some women take to mean being able to toss back as many drinks as any man. On the other hand, society judges women more harshly for being drunk than it does men. Yet, as Fitz-James demonstrates, there are more factors to consider when appraising the relation between women and drinking.
Fitz-James begins her solo show as herself and chronicles her relation to drinking from age 14 through high school. As she notes by looking at her actual high school yearbook, the life goal most of her classmates listed was to get out of the small town in Quebec where they grew up. For most kids the easiest way of escaping small town life was to get drunk and simply blot out boredom with oblivion. In Fitz-James’s case it didn’t help her to stay sober given that both her mother and grandmother were alcoholics. As Fitz-James’s introduction demonstrates her initial inclination to drink had nothing to do with feminism, male pressure or even peer pressure, but rather simply with the desire to escape and a peer culture that viewed this as a permissible means of doing so.
After this introduction, Fitz-James alternates scenes as two different characters. One is Fitz-James as she was as a first-year college student and the “drunk girl” of the title. The other is an academic, who, as we later discover, is meant to be a portrait of Fitz-James’s mother.
The Drunk Girl is having a great time. Away from parental constraints she can go to a bar and drink even more than she used to. She explains that there are rules to drinking and there are rules for playing drinking games the point of which is to get those playing to drink more than they wish to. The Drunk Girl teaches the whole audience how to play a couple of these games in which the “loser” has to take an extra drink. The most disturbing of these is when she gets someone from the audience to be “bro iced” on stage. “Bro icing” is forcing someone to chug a Smirnoff Ice (330 mL of 5% alcohol) while kneeling on one knee on the floor. The Drunk Girl gets the audience to chant the drinker’s name ever more quickly to encourage her to chug it down, thus making us complicit in the event.
Alternating with these scenes with the Drunk Girl, are scenes with the Academic. Fitz-James acts so naturally as the Drink Girl you might not think she was acting. But when you see how completely she transforms herself as the Academic, then you realize that both roles are simply characters in her play. Just as the Drink Girl speaks about rules, so does the Academic. She claims she has strict rules about how many drinks she has before lunch, how many with lunch. how many at cocktail time, how many before dinner, how many with dinner and how many afterwards. Thus, without a hint of irony, the Academic reveals that she is an alcoholic and is also under the illusion that her drinking is under control.
She dismisses recent studies about an “epidemic” of young women drinking on campus. The face of the college drunk is no longer a frat boy but an intelligent girl from the upper middle class. She believes that women are pressured to drink to show they are equal to men but at the same time are looked down on if they become drunk. Women supposedly have a lower tolerance for alcohol than do men, so, in fact, it is foolish for women to try to match men drink for drink. We notice during the show that the Academic drinks at least two bottles of wine, which seems simply a more sophisticated way of getting drunk than the beer and shooters favoured by the Drunk Girl.
Drink seems to make the Drunk Girl hyperactive up until she blacks out. The one negative event she recounts is that she has slept with her best friend’s boyfriend. She doesn’t know how it happened. She thinks it must be her fault because she is reluctant to think the boyfriend actually raped her.
Meanwhile, the Academic mulls over the recent confirmation hearings in the US of Brett Kavanaugh for Supreme Court Justice. She notes that society does not merely condemn women more for getting drunk but thinks that drunkenness somehow excuses a man’s taking advantage of a drunken woman. The Academic is also obsessed with Franz Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis” (1915) about a young man Gregor Samsa who awakes one morning to find he has been transformed into a huge beetle. (The German is “Ungeziefer” meaning “vermin”.) Her retelling of Kafka’s tale relates to the Drunk Girl’s story of coming to to find she has done something awful since both Samsa and the Drunk Girl are filled with shame.
Fitz-James’s play concludes with Fitz-James as herself again to deliver an epilogue where she states that her unashamedly feminist play has dealt with the double standard in how drinking is viewed in men and women and how she has dealt with issues of consent. Fitz-James’s summary is the kind of conclusion one sometimes finds in plays – say Horatio’s summation of the action at the end of Hamlet – that is an insufficient explanation of what has gone before.
What Fitz-James omits in her summary is as important as what she includes. Fitz-James’s introduction explains why she has drunk from age 14 through high school, but she gives no explanation why Drunk Girl drinks now that she is free from her small town and at university or why the Academic should drink when she is a fully mature woman with a responsible job. Why do the two still feel they have to blot out the world?
The play would seem to have nothing to do with feminism and more with the fact that they have both become addicted to alcohol and refuse to admit it. The Drunk Girl says she fears becoming like her mother, but a family history of alcoholism would seem to be the root cause rather than any responses to social pressure.
While it is reprehensible for men to take advantage of women incapacitated by alcohol, Fitz-James has both the Drunk Girl and the Academic repeat the same phrase that being drunk makes saying “No” problematic. This view does not exonerate the man but it also does not exonerate the woman who has taken no care for her safety. Much as the Drunk Girl tries to promote drinking as fun while the Academic looks on it as unremarkable, Fitz-James herself lets us look at these two women and discover for ourselves that alcoholism is neither fun nor unremarkable.
Among the merchandise Fitz-James is selling tied to her show is a button saying, “You don’t bro ice a friend”. That in itself should give us a clue to the sophisticated way that Fitz-James has demonstrated that using feminism to justify alcoholism is just another means alcoholic women use to excuse their addiction.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photos: Thea Fitz-James, © Dahlia Katz; Thea Fitz-James, © Tashi Hall.
For tickets, visit artscourt.ca.