Stage Door Review

She The People

Saturday, August 25, 2018

✭✭✭✩✩

by The Second City, directed by Carly Heffernan

The Second City, 51 Mercer Street, Toronto

August 11, 2018-March 17, 2019

“You Oughta Know”

With She The People, The Second City is currently presenting its first sketch show entirely created, designed and performed by women. If you had any doubts that women could channel their justifiable anger at their continued exclusion, subjugation and objectification in the 21st century into comedy, She The People is sure to dispel them. The show is, however, the “Toronto Edition” of The Second City Chicago’s She The People, which has been running there since January this year. Funny as the show is, you can’t help but wonder if a wholly Canadian-made revue would not have been even funnier and more relevant.

The premise of the revue is that the world is coming to an end. Initially, we think this means the end of the world in general. As we discover, however, this means the end of the world as we know it, i.e., one run by men. The sketches cover nearly every topic that has been in the news recently. When will women’s allegations of abuse be believed? Is there a right to abortion? Is feminism meant to frighten men? When will men pay attention to what women say instead of what they wear? Why do commercials still portray women as happy housewives? When will body shaming end?

The show’s full title is She The People: Girlfriends’ Guide to Sisters Doing It for Themselves, a comic way of hitting potential audience members over the head that the show is by and about women. Given the extent to which men still treat women in all realms of public life as second-class citizens, She The People would have been a great way to make women’s take on their situation known. To some extent the new revue does this, but it is frustrating to see how uneven the sketches are.

The best sketch of the evening, oddly enough, goes for irony not overt humour. In this a young girl (Ann Pornel), rushes into a classroom to complain that a boy has pushed her. The teacher, a cynical Karen Parker, asks if anyone saw the incident. No one did so the teacher says the girl is out of luck since no one will believe her or punish the boy. “What if a girl saw it?”, the girl asks. Then no one will believe her either is the teacher’s conclusion. “It gets better”, the girl says hopefully. “”No, it doesn’t”, the dour teacher states, “It gets worse”. The topic is obviously an analogue for women reporting sexual harassment or assault, and what humour there is comes from the brutally honest way the teacher speaks to the little girl. But the point is cleverly made and it is just fine that the sketch is not laugh-provoking. Why should it be?

Another clever sketch also uses an extended metaphor to make its point. In this an office worker (Paloma Nuñez) puts a frozen Lean Cuisine meal into the microwave and starts it but decides she does want it after all. This starts a major discussion in the office about whether the worker, who was planning to throw the meal away should be obliged to eat it or not, should give it to someone else or (in a terrible pun) bring it to Sherm (the boss). In another terrible pun, one woman states the worker is obliged to have the meal since “Food begins at convection”. The humour lies entirely in figuring out the not-so-hidden meaning of the Lean Cuisine meal.

Several sketches take aim at how women are portrayed in various media. In one involving the whole cast, the women ask why women in commercials are still portrayed as housewives who smilingly clean all day and whose rejoice whenever a new cleaning product is introduced. Another sketch presents Ashley Comeau as a typical Disney princess surround by happy woodland creatures. Comeau suddenly breaks out of the manufactured idyll to wonder why she should waste her time waiting around in the forest for a Prince Charming to come along. Switching from the tactic of complaint, a funny song-and-dance act involving the more zaftig women of the cast – Ann Pornel, Ashley Comeau and Tricia Black – rap out the song “Rubenesque” praising the voluptuousness of their figures. The precision of the act generates a positivity to combat the negativity of body shaming.

There are also sketches that treat solely woman-to-woman issues in an hilarious way. One of the best shows a young woman Aimee Ambroziak (understudy for Kirsten Rasmussen) visiting her mum (Karen Parker) with a friend (Ann Pornel). During the action the young women’s greatest fear of turning into her mother is realized – literally.

In contrast to skits like these others, compared to the normally high level of Second City, are uncharacteristically vague and confusing. In the extended scene that opens Act 2, the entire cast gathers as a group of women having lunch. They all order the same thing, but each one makes so many finicky modifications to the order you wonder how the server can maintain her patience. Having established this as satire on women at lunch, the women begin vapid gossiping using upspeak and vocal fry that tends to make their statements sound unintelligent. Then, periodically in the midst of all this, a serious topic will arise for which the women suddenly abandon their vocal mannerisms and discuss it in a complex, intellectual way, before lapsing back into gossip again.

The point of the sketch is totally unclear. Are we supposed to think the same women satirized as air-headed and trivial also can discuss important intellectual topics rigorously? Or is the point that just because some women come across as air-headed and trivial doesn’t mean that serious topics don’t affect them? If the second is true, why then does the sketch portray a group of women in such a clichéd negative way?

Another skit has the same problem of lack of clarity. It shows three women playing golf, teeing off, drinking beer and driving in the golf cart to the next tee. (The fact that the three are never shown finishing a hole is comically pointed out.) The sketch is obviously a satire on loutish male behaviour. The question is “Why is this in the show?” The revue has never needed to portray men to satirize them and one of its strengths is that it has focussed entirely on women. The meaning is fuzzy because it is not clear whether the three female actors are playing stereotypical men or whether they are playing women who are behaving like stereotypical men. If it is the second, the sketch would suggest that women who take men as a model are just as bad as men are. Unfortunately, the point is uncertain and sketch itself feels unnecessary.

The most puzzling sketch of all is one in which Aimee Ambroziak plays a “quirky lady” equipped with a ukulele she doesn’t use and an umbrella. She goes into the audience to have a romantic interlude with the hapless male of a hetero couple, but the point of the character and the action is a mystery.

Other sketches are so generic, one wonders why they have been included. This is the case with a sketch set up as a quiz show called “You Oughta Know” (sec. Alanis Morisette). An audience member is chosen to compete with two cast members and is proven, embarrassingly, to have a better knowledge of pop culture than of current events. Second City has used this kind of skit before but there is no attempt here to make it specific to what women should know about women.

She The People shows that it is fair-minded by satirizing women as well as men. In one sketch four women in a yoga class for mothers and babies spout various new age nonsense about childbirth and try to outdo each other in bragging about how much pain they felt. When a fifth woman (Ashley Comeau) mentions an epidural, the other four recoil in horror and the fifth women realizes that this group, where babies seem to be props more than actually benefiting from yoga themselves, is not for her.

Another sketch makes fun of hypocrisy in female friendships. When a young woman (Paloma Nuñez) is dumped by her boyfriend over Twitter, her friends don’t stint in heaping the guy with opprobrium. When however, the dumping turns out to be a mistake, the same friends go into reverse and heap the boyfriend with praise, that is, until the young woman is out of hearing when they return to castigating him.

The show also demonstrates that racism is not exclusive to men when a group of women ask Ann Pornel (of Filipino background) where she is from. After a great song she sings filled with faux-oriental chords by music director Nicole Byblow where the female chorus join in, Pornel reveals that she from that exotic land known as Scarborough.

The show concluded with the disaster announced at the start and hinted at various times in between. Some strange phenomenon said to be like the Upside Down in the Netflix series Stranger Things (a reference only fans will get) has taken all the men off earth. At first some women are distraught about how things will get done until they realize in an overtly sententious way that there is nothing a man can do that a woman can’t. The whole cast gathers and looks forward to the time when Canada will have its first female Prime Minister. “Oops, what about Kim Campbell?”, someone mentions. She doesn’t count. So the group longs for the time when Canada will have its first elected female Prime Minister, who will do such things as abolish war and reinstate the sex-ed curriculum.

At this point a nagging problem I was having with the show revealed itself. People in Canada do not talk about electing the Prime Minister because the PM is not elected directly as is the President in the US. The women would have to long for the time when a woman is already the head of a major political party that is then elected to power. This is not so snappy as speaking of the “first elected female Prime Minister”, but that phase doesn’t signify in a parliamentary democracy like Canada.

This grand finale to the show makes all too clear that She The People is an American show that has been adapted for Toronto. It’s quite obvious why Americans might wish for the first elected female President when they directly elect that position and when Hilary Clinton was so unexpectedly defeated by an unapologetic racist, misogynist egomaniac. The writing credits for the show are almost entirely American – Carisa Barreca, Alex Bellisle, Marla Caceres, Katie Caussin, Carly Heffernan, Maria Randazzo, Rashawn Nadine Scott, Tien Tran, Kimberly Michelle Vaughn, Lauren Walker and The Casts of The Second City – with Carly Heffernan, the director, the only named Canadian among them.

This bias helps explain why there would be a sketch about abortion. In the US a woman’s right to an abortion is under threat whenever a conservative party is in power with various conservative politicians vowing to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. That is not so in Canada where women have had the right since 1988, a right no major party has sought to repeal.

The bias also explains the comment about a female leader ending war – an endeavour in which the US has been so active and one that forgets that female Prime Ministers, like Margaret Thatcher, have also been warmongers. The US origin also explains why certain sketches that seem irrelevant – like the quirky lady sketch or the quiz show – are present in the Toronto show because they are also part of the original Chicago show. Even the title, of course, is a play on the first three words of the preamble to the US Constitution.

Canada in general and Toronto in particular has an abundance of female comedians who could make up their own She The People from scratch without having to adapt an American show for a Canadian audience. By all means see She The People to applaud the amazing Canadian talent on stage. But it spoiled my pleasure immensely that this show “entirely created, designed and performed by women” was not entirely created, designed and performed by Canadian women.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Tricia Black, Paloma Nuñez, Karen Parker. Ashley Comeau, Ann Pornel and Kirsten Rasmussen; Karen Parker, Ann Pornel, Kirsten Rasmussen, Tricia Black, Paloma Nuñez and Ashley Comeau; Tricia Black, Ann Pornel and Ashley Comeau singing “Rubenesque”. © 2018 Paul Aihoshi.

For tickets, visit www.secondcity.com.