Reasons to be Pretty – MC Showroom (VIC)
Written by Neil LaBute. Directed by Georgina Charteris.
Reviewed by Martha “MJ” Latham
Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
MC Showrooms, Victoria December 8th – December 11th
Plays do not exist in a contextless world. When we watch plays we cannot hide from the fact that they have come from a specific writer, and that writer has imbued the work with meaning. Sadly, Neil LaBute has a history of misogyny, misanthropy and just generally being a bit of a doomer.
With this in mind, I will say that the cast and crew of Reasons to be Pretty have done such a spectacular job. Let’s start with the crew. The lighting design knocked it out of the park. For a venue that leaves much to be desired in terms of scaffold, the designer manages to create a variety of unique spaces, from cold CostCo break rooms to warm apartment settings, the fairly minimal space is constantly being transformed with at most 15 lights.
Next is direction by Georgina Charteris. The program tells me this is Charteris’ directorial debut, in which case they have done a spectacular job. The cast is consistently putting out clear and consistent characterisations, and there is an obvious audience journey that we are invited to follow. There are a few small awkward moments (such as when the cast sit on the floor of the breakroom, or some uncomfortable tableaus as tall actors manage short tables). Without a set designer listed I assume that Charteris was responsible for this as well, in which case they have done incredibly well. The spaces feel lived in and natural, which is perfectly suited to the intended style. There are a number of entrances and exits that enable fluid movement throughout the play. The set has a few small details that feel odd, characters exiting through what has only ever been shown as a bathroom, an inconsistent bookcase that ranges from The Philosophy Book to Hunger Games (with the only two feminist books apparently being borrowed from the library), and lockers that are shared between characters. Overall though, these are minor mistakes that are often made by professional designers and directors, so for these to be the only errors made by a debut designer/director is incredibly impressive.
The cast also does some incredible characterisation work. The leads of Paris Valentino and Tobias Miller portray a realistic relationship, and have a genuine chemistry and humour that is engaging to watch. LaBute’s female characters are often lacking, so to see how much character has been drawn from the character of Steph is incredibly impressive. Jake Tolich does a good job of portraying our semi-antagonist. An asshole and a symbol of misogyny who we enjoy seeing acting a fool and getting the shit beaten out of him at the end. He’s ludicrous, over the top and hateable. I did become tired of the humping and handjob motions towards the end of the play, but this is more an error of the script than of the performer.
Standout however is undoubtedly Prishanti Middling. With a criminally underwritten character she manages to bring such a light to every scene she is in, and bring a genuine sense of self-reflection to LaBute’s work. With great physicalisation, vocalisation and characterisation, the character of Carly becomes a unique joyful light in every scene.
Okay, on to LaBute. Other writers smarter than me have written about LaBute’s misogyny and incel-y writing before. The breakout star writer of Shape of Things has only gotten more and more sad and vitriolic as time goes on. The biggest error here is the journey of our lead Greg. Are we as an audience meant to feel that he has become a better person throughout this play? Even at the end he is still describing his mistake as a “miscommunication” and refusing to apologise. He’s still not willing to tell Carly that her husband is cheating on her and instead decides to cowardly tell her to go home and catch him in the act. He is no different at the start of the play than the end?
Then let’s look at the play’s core theme of beauty. Most egregious here is Carly’s monologue about how her greatest curse is her beautiful face, and how it’s caused men to follow her home. Let me make this abundantly clear. Beauty has absolutely zero to do with misogyny. Men will follow any woman home regardless of how much they do or do not fit into traditional standards of beauty. We also have Greg’s monologue where he wishes that beauty had never existed. None of this seems to call into question the reality that beauty is not a fact. It is an ever changing set of rules and systems that are built (generally) by the desires of men. The problem with Greg’s claim that his girlfriend has a “regular” face is that Greg is thereby as much a sexist as his friend who claims that women are like athletes that only have a few years of “prime”. That beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but rather a truth.
This question about beauty is an interesting one, and particularly an interesting one to apply to heterosexual relationships where the traditions and expectations of gender are hyperpresent. However it’s not a question that is handled particularly delicately by LaBute. I wondered throughout the duration of this play what inspired the artists to put it on. Why not The Ugly One by Marius von Mayenburg? And why set it in 90s America, removing any chance for the audience to feel a sense of catharsis or connection with the characters?
Overall, I encourage you to go see whatever COCA productions puts on next, as the talent that is at play within their team is undoubtable. Above the outdated and lacking script of Reasons to be Pretty, was an incredible team of artists with an absolute passion for what they are doing.
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Directed by Georgina Charteris
Tobias Miller – Greg
Paris Valentino- Steph
Jake Tolich -Kent
Prashanti Middling – Carly
Felise Lyon – Swing
Kurt Russo – Swing