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Courtesy of The Cherry Artspace

October 2, 2019

‘The Shoe’ is Wonderfully Absurd

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The Shoe is about everything but a shoe.

This play, written by Québécois playwright David Paquet and translated for the first time into English by Leanna Brodie, opened at The Cherry Artspace last Thursday.

The light dims. A mother (Amoreena Wade) grabs the mic and introduces us to her teenage son, Benoit (Josh Witzling), who is having a meltdown before going to the dentist. Witzling’s wildly physical performance immediately sets the tone of the night as quirky and comedic.

At the dentist’s office, Benoit and his mom are greeted by the sweet receptionist Helen (Emma Elizabeth Bowers). She has a pet named Hercules, who she keeps in a shoebox. The dentist Simeon (Godfrey Simmons) walks out awkwardly, his entire face wrapped in white gauze, making him somewhat sinister-looking. He takes Benoit to his office, while the two women have a friendly enough conversation in the waiting area … until Simeon re-enters with a hammer in his hand, and a screaming Benoit following behind.

Then the most fascinating thing happened  — with a shift in lighting and music, the scene “rewinds” to before the dentist and Benoit leave, only this time we follow them into the office. The Tarantino-esque technique allows the audience to see both sides of the story and then piece together the narrative, something that’s quite unusual in theatre, yet surprisingly effective in creating suspense and resolving confusion without overt expositions. For example, the mystery of the hammer is answered when we see the dentist pulling it out from Benoit’s mouth during an “operation”. We then follow them back out to the waiting area and pick up right where we left off. The scene ends with Benoit, in a fit of panic, hammering the shoebox and killing Hercules.

If the first visit is only tinged with absurdity, the second visit is a whole other level. In the waiting area, the two women share shots of alcohol and their backstories. Benoit’s mom talks about the time when she was just “Melanie” and a life that doesn’t revolve around her son, before suddenly bursting into a furious rant about Helen’s carefree lifestyle. There is a moment of silence, and Helen reveals that her ex-husband left because she had too many miscarriages. Their struggles are identifiable, yet I find it hard to sympathize at this supposedly poignant moment; Wade’s delivery fails to warrant the abrupt shift in tone and the confession almost feels forced.

Benoit and the dentist, on the other hand, have a nice, nitrogen-oxide-induced laugh together. Benoit, still catching his breath, casually mentions that it’s his first time laughing. Simeon, in response, tells a heartbreaking story about how everybody cared for his niece when she broke her leg and had to wear a cast around. “I’d like people to pay attention to my injuries too,” he says longingly as he takes off his gauze and gently wraps it around Benoit’s face. What is commonly seen as the symbol of harm suddenly acquires new meanings: in this corner of the world in a dimly lit dentist’s office, two unusual people are connected by their invisible injuries. The scene again ends with an operation, but this time Simeon retrieves a light bulb from Benoit’s mouth.

From this point forward, the play starts to make more sense to me even though the action becomes exceedingly strange. The playwright’s intent to present lucid observations in this over-the-top comedy is clear: it’s not about the visits to the dentist or the shoe but rather, loneliness and connection, pain and healing and, perhaps, even our inability to cope with reality as a species.

The production design is simple yet effective. I enjoy the transformation of space with the quick rearrangement of furniture. The two mics hanging from the ceiling illuminate this idea of performance – Helen, while still dealing with the death of Hercules, speaks into the microphone in her receptionist voice and sounds perfectly calm. Melanie narrates the entire last act in the microphone as if she was merely the storyteller but not a participant of the scene. Which brings us to another motif of the play – the book Melanie’s been reading. Simeon asks why she likes to read at dinner, and she explains how she couldn’t hear a thing when she’s with the book, because “stories become sanctuaries.” Yet this play is more than a sanctuary – it challenges us with hard-to-swallow truths till the very end.

Of course, there are things I have questions about: the sexual tension between Melanie and Simeon doesn’t sit well with me, and the dance intermissions between acts feel quite pointless. Issues like mental illness (how Helen is described as “psychotic”; the cause behind Benoit’s manic episodes) and suicide are merely touched upon and in a rather one-sided fashion.

But at the end of the day, everyone shows their own vulnerabilities: some more obvious, like the dark circles under Melanie’s eyes or Benoit’s constant meltdowns; and some harder to see on the surface, like the nonsensical storyline of Miracles of Love, or Simeon’s face hidden under the gauze. This story is an ode to the single shoe, who eventually accepts that it’s ok to not be in a pair. As Helen proudly proclaimed, clutching to her empty shoebox, “I’d rather be happy than normal.”

Me too, Helen, me too.

 

The Shoe has four more performances this upcoming weekend. On Friday, October 4, there will be a “Cherry Commons” talkback after the show. On Monday, October 7 at 4:30pm, the department of Performing and Media Arts will host a conversation with members of the artistic team in Room 220 of Schwartz Center.