Mashing up the Meninist: A review of M'Lady
Shannon Friday goes to this all-singing, all-dancing satire of men’s rights activism and pick up artistry, and finds both brains and heart.
M'Lady is about a horde of young dude-bros trying to figure out masculinity, dating, and how to get out the hell out of the Friendzone. Leading the escape is Elliot (Aimee Smith), a self-proclaimed “nice guy” who can't translate his niceness into totally-deserved-by-now sex with unattainable Freyda, despite multiple movie trips and even, perish the thought, listening to her. Enter G and Aidan (Jayne Grace and Freya Van Alphen Fyfe), equally self-proclaimed PUAs: Pick Up Artists. A gentleman's wager ensues in which G says he can transform Elliot into the ultimate chick-magnet in just one week, even pitting him up against the ultimate babe-pull, Nemesis (an incandescent Karen Anslow).
Here's the kicker: all the parts are played by women, and I cannot understate how important this choice is. M'Lady is a fierce critique of the way young men are trained to be “cool” rather than real or vulnerable. By mashing up the meninist (as in, anti-feminist) rhetoric with the always-there camp factor of musical theatre, and, even more, DRAG, M'Lady dares to both empathise with its characters and hold them accountable for the identities they are choosing.
M'Lady's drag is not the drag of The Birdcage or To Wong Foo: while we the audience can see it, the characters can't; it is decidedly metatheatrical.
M'Lady's drag is not the drag of The Birdcage or To Wong Foo: while we the audience can see it, the characters can't; it is decidedly metatheatrical. And none of the actors are trying to “pass”: there's no fake facial hair, breasts remain un-strapped, and the actresses sing in their natural registers. As an audience, we're constantly reminded that we are watching women pretending to be men. And there's a ton of effort put into that pretence. Lisa Kiyomoto-Fink's costume design complements some specific acting choices, such as Al's (Karen Anslow again) chin-tucked staunch bloke-iness under his All Black's knitted cap, or G's belly-first posturing as a man's man reminiscent of Anchorman's Brian Fontana, complete with neon zebra print and rhinestone-monogrammed cowboy hat. At the same time, it's all wonderfully camp, from the outsized colours and broad musical theatre gestures, to the emotional stakes of the songs and comedy beats.
That drag campiness bumps right up against some oblivious meninist rhetoric. “After all,” intones G as he encourages Elliot to find his signature pick up move, “every woman is the same, while every man is different.” But the power of this rhetoric is undercut by both the drag, in which we see a gutsy woman saying these words.
It’s weirdly dissonant, and it reminds us how painfully constructed and desperately preserved the bros’ identities are. Backing up the drag are the musical theatre conventions that M'Lady has so thoroughly mastered. Director Tse and company bounce back and forth from the ridiculous, like soft-shoeing men's rights activists, to the sincere, such as Al's late-show confession song in which he details how his own self discovery came too late to save his marriage.
And there's more than just cleverness to the staging (though it is undoubtedly clever). For example, Elliot's rugby-obsessed Al appears to be your stereotypical emotionally constipated good ole Kiwi bloke. But two rugby commentators (Greer Phillips and Marysia Collins, who both play multiple roles) not only provide comedy beats as they compare the rugby game’s ups and downs to Elliot and Al's fumbling relationship, but also serve as an emotional chorus for Al, who is played with a sort of deer-in-headlights frozenness anytime the conversation turns deeper than the next play.
At the same time, the chorus allows the audience a glimpse into Al's interior, something he's not letting out anytime soon. And so it feels only right when he gets M'Lady's love ballad, “Al and El.” It's a choice both pathetic and bathetic: even as the sentiment feels overblown because, hey, it's just rugby, we see Al's attachment to rugby coming from a desire to connect with his kid like his dad connected with him. It's incredibly sentimental and sweet even as it is silly, and so it’s hardly a surprise that Al winds up being the emotional heart of the show.
It's incredibly sentimental and sweet even as it is silly, and so it’s hardly a surprise that Al winds up being the emotional heart of the show.
At the same damn time, there's a LIVE ORCHESTRA led by Michael Stebbings. They nail an astounding number of musical styles, from the Singing in the Rain-esque routine “She,” to the tango/soul mash-up tune “Ain't Too Proud to Neg,” to the “Empire of Man,” a villain song that is one part Plato's Republic and one part “Be Prepared” from The Lion King.
If I have one quibble with the show it’s that Elliot's character arc feels under-developed. He's presented as the voice of not-quite-reason for much of the show: skeptical of G and Aidan's claims of dude-bro mastery and arguing for “just being nice.” It all sounds reasonable, but never pushes Elliot out of his comfort zone, meaning he has little impetus to change his behaviour until he finally pushes G and Adrian too far. It isn't until his final song – and hoo boy is that song a stunner – that Elliot starts to question his own assumptions about “what a nice guy is.” His arc feels overshadowed by Adrian's, who moves from low-key witty sidekick to self-actualized male separatist. Elliot's final encounter with his younger self at the movie theatre feels more like it is proving to us, as an audience, that Elliot has changed than springing from the demands of character or story.
That, however, is a damn quibble, because M'Lady is a show with both brains and heart: while the satire of hyper-masculinity is on point, characters are consistently rewarded when they do settle down and open up to each other. And it’s a choice that really gets the emotional lives of a lot of dudes. And because of that choice, it lets us as a knowing audience laugh at them and then triumph in their successes.
M'Lady runs from 10 - 19 August at BATS.
Photos by Liesel Carnie.