Tag: women

Creature Discomfort

I’ve been thinking a lot about violence: that which we inflict upon each other, in large and small ways, and that which we direct upon ourselves. Every night the television news is filled with searing images of suffering and pain. reminders of the awful damage us humans are capable of, through snarky opportunism, willful malevolence, or some sad combination of both.

Canadian playwright Judith Thompson has never shied away from these issues. The award-winning playwright has spent her career exploring the myriad of ways we inflict violence on those we love, those we hate, and those we don’t even know. Her first play, 1980’s The Crackwalker, was a gritty examination of the lives of four disturbed people, all but forgotten by mainstream society; 1997’s Palace of the End was a triptych of haunting monologues delivered by damaged souls who’d been affected by the Iraq war. Thompson, who is a two-time recipient of a Governor-General’s Award for drama and has been awarded the Order of Canada, isn’t afraid to ask tough questions around morality and intolerance in her work, nor does she shy away from the depiction of hurts, physical, mental, spiritual and psychological, and their related conequences. Thompson’s latest work, Such Creatures, takes the simple premise of two women at two different points in history, recounting their tales; one is a Holocaust survivor, the other an Aboriginal street tough. I had the opportunity to speak with Thompson to exchange ideas around the inspiration for the work, the connection between the two women, and the real-life stories that fuel her creative world. Thompson’s responses are still so inspiring to me; I’ve highlighted my favourite bits.

Was there a specific event that inspired Such Creatures?

Many moments and stories inspired the play, (like) Reena Virk and others like her. I have realized that many young girls live in a kind of war zone almost as dangerous as the one so many young men live in, but they don’t make the news… I teach acting, and one of the exercises I assign is for the students to interview someone out of their normal social sphere, and then bring a monologue to present to the class; a student from outside of Ottawa brought a letter given to her by an elderly neighbour. The letter was written to her by her sister, from the prison within Auschwitz, where she was waiting to be hung for her part in the Auschwitz revolt in which Crematorium 4 was blown up. When I heard this letter, something inside me shifted. I knew I would revisit the letter. I was so inspired by the courage of these young girls.

Why did you choose two female protagonists?

Many male heroes have been celebrated in drama, but there are so many unsung female heroes and martyrs, and these girls… well, both are heroic, because they face violence with bravery, and one especially takes huge risks to benefit others. They have nerves of steel, sharp extraordinary intellects, and they are both only fifteen! I want to look at women who are leaders, and fighters, women who will never ever give up or surrender their beliefs.

What do you think binds these women together, ultimately?

We carry our history in our bodies, and deep in our psyches, we carry every woman’s experience. We stand on the shoulders of the women who lived before we were born, whatever race or religion we are. Preparing to fight a gang of girls to the death is facing death; it has come down to the very same thing that the girl at Auschwitz faced every day. We are always underestimated, valued mainly for our attractiveness to men. These girls are so so so much more than that -and so are we all!

Such Creatures runs at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille through February 7th.

Woman. Hungry.

As I tucked into my quickly-thrown-together past earlier tonight, the thought occurred that it was perhaps a bit late to be digging into such a rich dish. 10:30pm? Yikes.

“Have to hit the gym tomorrow,” I thought, with more than a hint of anxiety.

While I am a big promoter (and lover) of physical activity, I can’t deny that a larger thought overtook the guilt-tinged one: damn it, I’m hungry. I had a long, stressful day, it’s cold out, and damn, I was really hungry. Women are often, I feel, given the nth degree of guilt when it comes to our relationship with food. It’s as if we’re only meant to eat salad, fruit, and tuna, and never revel in the hugely enjoyable delight that comes with gastronomy. “Stay thin!” every media image shouts, “body fat is disgusting!” It’s as if I have choose: a great body, or fulfilling my appetite. How unfair.

Thus, it follows that a large part of my attraction to Nigella Lawson is her turning away from this guilt over all things food-related, and freely, sensuously celebrating indulgence in the acts of cooking and eating. I still sometimes think that, despite my truly admiring her bringing in a decidedly European approach, we’re too far too youth-and-skinny obsessed (especially in North America) to truly heed her message. She isn’t arguing for gluttony -but nor is she arguing for poe-faced self-denial. She’s arguing for rich, luscious womanhood, something I’m still not sure North America can wrap its size-0-youth-obsessed heads around.

And so it was that I found myself greedily spooning in mouthfuls of gorgeous, creamy, vegetable-laden pasta lastnight, amidst watching documentaries, writing future blogs, and organizing a myriad of projects. It hit the spot. I offer this handy stir-together recipe for all busy, harried women -and men -who want a good, nourishing meal after a long day. Pour yourself a glass of wine while you’re at it. Eat, and enjoy.

You’ll need:

roughly a handful of pasta (or two, if you want leftovers)
salt
olive oil
Noilly Prat (or other good white vermouth)
1/2 cup broccoli (baby is best)
1/2 red pepper
1/2 tomato (or 1 plum tomato)
1/4 red chili
a handful of spinach leaves
1/2 cup tomato sauce (passata, jarred, or creamy are all fine)
roughly 4 tbsp fresh-grated parmesan

Salt and boil water. Add pasta, stir, add more salt (I use coarse-cut sea salt, but use whatever you like).

As the pasta cooks, prep the vegetables. I’ve listed broccoli, red pepper, spinach, and chili, but you can also use carrot, zuccini, onion -whatever you have on-hand, but keep it varied, colourful, and flavourful.

Peel broccoli stems and discard the peels. Cut peeled stems on the diagonal in medium strips; judge florets accordingly. You want them to be bite-sized. Set aside. Roughly chop red pepper (again, keep pieces bite-sized -medium-ish, in other words). Set aside. Chop tomato and set aside. Wash and roughly dry spinach leaves. Remove stems. Chop roughly and set aside. Carefully slice chili pepper (it’s a good idea to wear gloves); if you don’t like things too spicy, discard the seeds. Set aside, making sure the chopped chilis don’t touch anything else.

Drain pasta once it’s cooked; 8-10 minutes should do the trick, depending on what type you use -I like penne or large shells for things involving sauces, but if you only have spaghetti or some other ribbon-like pasta, then leave out the tomato-based sauce (and indeed, chopped tomato) and go with butter and garlic instead.

Using the same pot you cooked the pasta in, heat up the olive oil. You’ll need just enough to coat the bottom of the pan. Turn down the heat to medium. Add chopped broccoli, and stir around to coat. Add a splash of Noilly Prat and clamp the lid on to steam lightly for 3-5 minutes. When broccoli is a bright green, add the red pepper and stir. The mixture might still be liquid -that’s okay. Add the chopped tomato and stir around. Clamp on the lid and allow to bubble merrily for about 2-3 minutes. Add the chilies and stir; let cook for about a minute.

Shake off excess water from the pasta and throw in, along with any tomato-based sauce you may be using. Stir. Add chopped spinach. Stir stir stir. The spinach might seem overwhelming for the pasta, but as it is heated with the rest of the mixture, it will quickly wilt down, leaving gorgeous green ribbons winding their way through the pot.

Gently grate the parmesan straight in. Stir gently and turn off the heat. I’ve given a measurement of 4 tbsp, but certainly, use as much (or as little) as you wish. You want the cheese essentially to draw things together. Grate more on top (if you wish) once it’s in your plate, in a mound of gorgeous tomato-y lusciousness.

Spoon in. Drink wine. Repeat.

And most of all: no guilt. You’re hungry. Period.

You Can’t Catch Me

In keeping with my contemplations about images of women in popular culture lately, a couple things from the last few weeks have been sticking and bear a bit of examination. Opera was, for many moons, the pop culture of its day; not solely the denizens of the upper classes, it was the place where music, entertainment, theatre and play melded together and foisted into onto a wider social milieu. Images of swooning heroines and brave men abounded, based, as many pieces were, on classical tales from Mediterranean mythologies. A time passed and the world shifted its attention to more current concerns, opera began to reflect what I’d call World Politics Lite; that is, librettists and composers would bring in contemporary themes and ideas reflective of the wider world, but include elements of yore to make the whole thing a bit more palatable. Opera was already a place where questioning the norm wasn’t quite (cough) allowed; making its characters -especially its women -safe, predictable, passive, and victimized allowed for a greater audience catharsis, however insincere and overwrought it may have been.

All of this bubbled up to the surface following a recent visit to the opera. The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Madame Butterfly (closing tonight at the Four Seasons Centre) is beautiful in its simplicity; Brian MacDonald‘s solid direction and Susan Benson‘s dreamy design provide a poetic austerity amidst the washed-out shades and colourings. Adina Nitescu‘s soprano is full, throaty, and lovely, and her acting is keenly felt, and as such, entirely moving.

Yet there is something that has always troubled me about the opera; Cio-Cio San (or “Butterfly”) is so terribly naive, her blind, passionate infatuation with Pinkerton and all he represents is maudlin in the extreme, and her willingness to throw over her culture and historical heritage to win validation is deeply unnerving. Along with these troubling notions, there’s the patronizing, stereotypical portrayal of Japanese culture itself. “Isn’t it cute?” the libretto implies, “aren’t these such nice simple people?” The atonal, rhythmic qualities of the music imitates this patronizing attitude; it’s about as Japanese as the teriyaki stand in your local mall’s food court.

The opera is a reflection of Puccini’s awareness of the colonial reach of the U.S. -and, by extension, Italy -but it absolutely reeks of White Privileged European Male-ness. As if to balance all this vitriol, I was struck, in sitting there watching it for the umpteenth time recently, of the sheer gorgeousness of much of the music. Somehow, I reconciled my extreme discomfort with Butterfly’s chauvinistic, colonial underpinnings with Puccini’s genuinely beautiful, dreamy score. It didn’t make any of the issues I have easier to bear, nor did it lubricate the suspension of my disbelief over the next two hours; it did, however, remind me that sometimes it’s better to shut your eyes and listen to the notes, not the words. Of course, once I opened them again, I was hit, strongly, by the pretense of theatre cushioning us, so we can sigh over scenarios that would be anything but romantic in reality. There’s a patronizing, reductive archness to it all that renders Butterfly’s choices insincere and too easy to excuse: “well she’s just a kid…

This same frustrating sense of reduction happened again with the musical version of Debbie Does Dallas (running to November 8th at Toronto’s Theatre Centre). The musical is based on the tacky 70s porn flick of the same name. Presented by the newly-formed Ghost Light Projects, the work is cute, bouncy, and empty -kind of like Debbie herself. Lead Jamie Robinson is likeable and certainly an ebullient presence onstage, but the premise -Nice-Girl Cheerleader Turns Into Wholesome Whore To Chase Her Dreams -is tiresome and dated. I enjoyed director Penelope Corrin injecting a bit of social commentary in small drims and drams throughout, questioning the outmoded idea that equates selling sexual favours with liberation. There weren’t enough of those moments, alas. More brazenly unzipping the trousers of chauvinism parading as liberation might’ve made for a more powerful piece, even within the admittedly-small corral of the musical itself. Debbie Does Dallas may be all puffery and pom-poms, but it holds a darker, decidedly unpleasant undertone that isn’t funny at all.

A much better example of liberation in action was Ghost Light’s second, so-called “complementary” production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The punk rock musical features some kick-ass tunes along with a juicy lead role -uh, for a man. Still, Seth Drabinsky’s angry passionate portrayal of the East German rock diva icon -not fully male, not fully female -nicely encapsulated the claustrophobic rage at the masquerade of societal gender stereotypes. He was backed up by the incredible sonic power of local Toronto band The Vicious Guns and actor/singer L.A. Lopes, who director Corrin cleverly placed in a beard and drab garb; the ensuing confusion, between Lopes’ masculine appearance and high, searing soprano vocal was a kind of delicious confusion -and possessed a kind of manic, gorgeous opera all its own. The fact Hedwig spits out her memories of living in communist-era Europe also has a delicious timeliness, considering this week marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. It’s as if the zeitgeist of that moment of liberation found expression in Hedwig’s manic energies, sexual and otherwise.

The production itself nicely mixes the busy confusion of sexual politics with the more tender aspects of love, never slipping into the maudlin or saccharine. Corrin innately understands the snarling energy of punk rock and its transformative power in both epic and intimate ways. You change yourself; you change the world around you. That isn’t necessarily a punk ethos either; it’s a human one. Reducing one’s self to bits and pieces reduces the world, and our capacity to move freely in it. The wall’s fallen; the web’s mental. Leave your mark, Hedwig urges, and move on.

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