OCTOBER 2019 | Volume 184


Production image

Shimon Photo.

Body Awareness
by Annie Baker
Mitch and Murray Productions
Studio 16, 1555 W. 7th Ave.
Oct. 10-20
$14-$32 or 1-800-838-3006

I love Mitch and Murray Productions. Their one show a year—two this season—are always really interesting and have really strong casts. Their plays of choice are contemporary, American, realist and hard-hitting.

I love-hate playwright Annie Baker. Loved The Flick, hated Circle Mirror Transformation. Body Awareness falls somewhere in between for me, but leaning heavily towards the negative column. I find it confusing and, in many respects, just not credible.

Aaron Craven’s production is typically solid, with some dynamic performances and a handsome set from David Roberts. But this was one of those occasions when I just didn’t get it.

In a Vermont college town, Joyce (Jennifer Copping) and Phyllis (Suleka Mathew) live together with Joyce’s son Jared (Zac Scott). Phyllis is a feminist psychology professor at the university. Joyce teaches high school.

Twenty-one year-old Jared is a disturbed young man with obvious psychological issues. He reads the OED, insists he’s “an autodidact” and works at MacDonald’s when he’s not at home masturbating to porn. He’s also prone to violent outbursts. Joyce and Phyllis are convinced he has Asperger’s syndrome. Jared angrily denies it: “I’m surrounded by imbeciles,” he screams. “Stop telling everyone I’m retarded!”

It’s Body Awareness Week at the university, where Phyllis is hosting a number of events. But the two women are also hosting, in their home, artist-in-residence Frank (John Murphy), whose art consists of large-scale photographs of naked women. Phyllis is appalled by Frank’s work and his obnoxious, aggressive behavior in their kitchen where he expresses his concern about “PC” and calls Phyllis “honey.” Joyce, in contrast, is taken with him and his art.

Frank becomes marginally more complicated in the second half of the play. Joyce and Phyllis have a falling out when Joyce asks Frank if he will photograph her nude. After Frank and Jared talk about sex, Jared gets into trouble by inappropriately approaching a young girl.

Some of these elements are compelling, but here’s what I don’t get:

Phyllis reveals that Frank’s nude photos of women and young girls are hanging in the student union. With my 45 years of university teaching experience, I can say unequivocally that no university in North America would hang such photos in the student union or anywhere else on campus except, perhaps, an art gallery.

How can Joyce, who teaches cultural studies for heaven’s sake, be so naïve about the implications of Frank’s artwork, his sexist behaviour and her posing for him.

Is it really conceivable that Joyce and Phyllis have never taken Jared to be examined or diagnosed for what is so obviously some kind of psychological issue?Joyce explains that it’s because Jared has always refused to go. Instead, the women give him a psychology textbook to read about autism. But really? His acting out (for 21 years) would be intolerable in any household. And he is clearly suffering from his condition.

Finally, Body Awareness is the second play I’ve seen this month in which a central character behaves according to what may be Asperger’s. Dancing Lessons at Jericho features a science professor who graphically illustrates and talks about his Asperger’s. Some of his symptoms—his inability to be touched or have sex—are overcome by the dancer. I wonder, in my review (,
if in 2019 we can so cavalierly play autism for comedy with actors who are apparently not autistic. (How PC, Frank would say.)

Jared—played very effectively by Scott, part of me would say—is not such a comic character, although we are meant to laugh at some if the incongruous things he says. And it’s not 100% certain that he has Asperger’s. Still, the other half of me remains deeply uncomfortable about this non-Asperger’s actor (an assumption I’m making about Scott) portraying such specific symptoms in ways that make the character seem funny or weird to us. Phyllis even has a speech in the play about representation, so how can we ignore that issue in the production itself?

Finally, I just don’t get it – what the play is ultimately about, what we’re supposed to think about the characters, and how to rationalize or reconcile so many unrealistic elements.



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