Jet Girls Soar

April 21, 2015

Monday mornings are tumultuous in their own, quiet way. I set out on my walk early, and before heading home to start work, I buy groceries at the Foodland at Pape and Danforth. Pushing my cart around the aisles, deciding between organic and conventional products, I am immersed in an inner stew of gratitude/anxiety/guilt about being able to work at home and buy good food and have it delivered, and resentment/anxiety/guilt about the way household tasks can chip away at writing time.

Imagine my dismay last week when I found a line-up of nonplussed, not-quite-awake patrons snaking through the aisles of a newly renovated Foodland. It became clear my posterior would most definitely not be in the seat by 9:30, as planned.

The trouble was coming from the cash desk. Instead of the women – all middle aged, like yours truly – who manage to commiserate about everyone’s aches and pains as they speed items along their conveyor belts, there was a twenty-something guy on duty. And for some reason, he’d been left alone to check out the groceries of a whole store-full of people, all marinating in their own particular Monday-morning anxieties.

Did this bother him? Not that I could tell. He sang at his work, occasionally stopping altogether to discuss recipes with his customers. He was enjoying himself, looking after himself. In other words, he was a terrible cashier.

And when it finally came my turn, he went over to the stack of new red bins that have been giving my regular cashier-friends tennis elbow, picked one up like it weighed nothing, and danced – literally – back to the till, singing along with the PA system.

Hold the line!
Love isn’t always on time!

I decided I had to love this kid (happily, “not in that way”) and use the delay as an opportunity for speculation. Is this a guy thing? A millennial thing? Or is there just one boy out there who should never be a cashier?

Maria. Paging Maria. Maria to the cash desk please. Of course, it was all my fault the Foodland was going south! I’d better get going … I’d better …

And just then one of the older cashiers came upstairs and opened a second cash desk. Oh, right. There are a lot of Marias in this world. I went home, cobbled together my best approximation of an honest day’s work, and forgot about the whole episode.

Until I had the chance to witness another role reversal on Friday night, in the Jet Girls’ all-female version of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross at the Red Sandcastle Theatre. It got me thinking, all over again, about privilege and entitlement, and taking up time and space.

In Mamet’s classic exploration of power and greed, a group of men in a shady and very cutthroat real estate firm jockey for position, sometimes confronting each other, sometimes, stabbing each other in the back and sometimes both. They posture, they insult, they gossip, they brag, they bargain hard and make inflated demands. Oh, and they swear.

In the Jet Girls’ version, the characters wear women’s business outfits, but retain their male names. Under the direction of Anita LaSelva, they’re every bit as rude and pushy as the script demands. All the expected ways women have of relating to each other and to the world are banished. The program notes remind us that women are just as capable of aggression as men. I couldn’t agree more. But we’re very, very effectively conditioned not to show it. I like to think we’ve seen the wisdom of collaboration, too. It makes sense that everyone in the play comes to grief.

But oh! It was utterly satisfying to see these women fly in the face of stereotypes, to see them express forbidden drives in forbidden ways.

Satisfying, too, to see a group of actors of such depth and brilliance pour themselves into great roles. Francoise Balthazar made me jump out of my skin in her role as the bully, Dave Moss, Marianne Sawchuk as Richard Roma could very easily have charmed me into signing on the dotted line, and Elizabeth Saunders gave a stunningly detailed performance as Shelly (The Machine) Levine. Robinne Fanfair was brutal as the detective, Julia Brar, an unyielding John Williamson. Somehow, there was nuance beneath the bombast. They were amazing.

The Red Sandcastle is a long, narrow space, and production values were simple. In the first row, we sat so close to the action we had to pull our feet under our chairs to avoid tripping the actors on their entrances and exits.

I’d only ever seen one version of Glengarry Glen Ross – the movie – and I admired it but didn’t enjoy it. Now I know why. The film was just too naturalistic. I was spending all my energy trying to decipher the plot through the rapid-fire dialogue. In the hands of the Jet Girls, the play took flight. The role reversal provided a constant invitation to interrogate both the strangeness – and familiarity – of the behaviour that makes the corporate world go round. I relaxed about the complicated text and just enjoyed the rhythms of the language: the poetry of invective!

To me, the most fascinating and complex moments in this production were those in which the characters express vulnerability. Laurel Paetz’s George Aaronow spends a lot of the play being afraid, Rosemary Doyle’s James Link pleads: “I have no power!” Shelly makes a virtuosic last stand but loses everything in the end. These are very different moments coming from women than from men and the actors have to play them as men whose sense of entitlement is being undermined.

But to describe what really made this show so wonderful, I need to back up (not to my shopping, I promise) but to arriving at the theatre in the first place. Rosemary Doyle, the founder of the Red Sandcastle Theatre, was doing box office and front of house, a task which included grabbing stools from the washroom of the 50-odd seat theatre, and pushing aside some curtains to make more space. Like Mary Poppins with her carpet bag, she kept on producing more seats. It was a packed house! The line-up spilled out in front of the adjacent Value Village Store, and she gamely announced that we were welcome to bring in ice cream from Eds Real Scoop or drinks from the neighbouring bar after intermission. When intermission was over, she poked her head into these establishments to call the patrons back to the theatre. All the while playing her part in the show.

The Red Sandcastle is her brainchild, which she started three years ago in a Leslieville Storefront. When I asked about her motivation, she replied, “I started the theatre because I wanted people to be able to do work they were excited about, when they were still excited about it, without losing their shirts. I also wanted to make it possible for an audience to attend a show, as easily as deciding to go to dinner. Ideally I want theatre to be a part of everyone’s regular life.” Her motto is “everything is possible.” She hosts everything from groups like the Jet Girls to one-night readings, to a “play in a week” camp on March break.

The Jet Girls were created to give opportunities for women and ethnic minorities. As they point out on their web site, “The Hollywood ideal of size zero, male, Caucasian and twenty is very limiting and damaging.  … Rather than becoming discouraged we decided to take action!”

To me, this is the real treasure embedded in this production. The women involved are claiming power not by posturing or backstabbing, but by having a great time, doing what they love.

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