Short Captions for Stick Figures
Barron Theatre, 18th September 2012
The announcement of a new Tim Foley play so soon after the recent success of Meat at the Fringe had me pretty excited and, judging from how crowded the Barron was, I was part of a more general collective excitement. I knew two things only about the production: Short Captions for Stick Figures was put together in a week by a cast of four and that ‘sex was on the a-gender’, thus putting my expectations much higher than what were reasonably necessary to review the play. Walking into the Barron and seeing an office setting heightened this anticipation further; the appearance of normality seemed to hint towards the deconstruction of conventional norms that would inevitably occur.
Short Captions depicts the female head of Human Resources, Warner (Ayanna Coleman), in her dealings with the stolidly belligerent Bob (Jasper Lauderdale), who works as a ‘captionist’ for the advertising department. Warner’s office, which is where the play takes place, encapsulates her attempts to create an egalitarian workplace through hanging motivational posters and the presence of the ‘serenity sofa’, a place where all workmates can sit and discuss any issues they have. Recreating the typical mentality of the modern corporation, the play illustrates the breakdown of the well-meaning ideals behind this mentality when confronted with the logical analysis of their meaning.
Warner asks in a moment of sarcastic irritation whether Bob can provide the ‘proof’ that he has the biological prerequisites to use the women’s bathroom, provoking Bob to claim that Warner indecently suggested that he expose himself and in the following scene, his lawyer (Alex Levine) insistently writes down everything Warner says despite her protestations. As she becomes more and more agitated, particularly in response to Bob’s continual suggestions that she is pregnant, she begins to use gender-marked insults and sexually violent language, further distorting her supposed egalitarianism until she becomes the embodiment of that which she argues against, the oppressive reinforcement of gender identities. Forcing her secretary Jackie (Emma Taylor) to bend over provocatively as a way of distracting his lawyer, heightens the level of this aggression, culminating with a drunken threat to lie about the incident and claim that she was in fact pregnant, thus completing the transformation.
Nothing is ever spelled out or completely explained, always leaving the possibility that Bob’s deconstruction of gender archetypes is legitimately important to him and his arguments for using the women’s bathroom flicker between the ridiculous and the surreally logical. This idea extends beyond the use of stick figures to denote gender (long hair and a dress connoting the female) into genuine questions about sexual identity, which is emphasises all the more as Warner resorts to more devious and cynical methods of dealing with Bob. Bob too remains a mystery. His gradual change into a new kind of femininity appears ridiculous, but his integrity can never be gauged entirely as his arguments are never defeated and so his position is never usurped. The ‘proof’ is never provided, not explicitly, instead daring Warner and the audience to find it for themselves, or else accept the new ‘a-gender’ of sex and so allow Bob to use the women’s bathroom.
Ultimately Short Captions for Stick Figures is very funny, but with that humour it still makes for a thought-provoking hour. It’s an odd thematic blend, like if Joe Orton had written a Dilbert strip featuring a trans-gender Wally, and it works incredibly well. The fact that it was produced in such a short time is astonishing, considering how professional the presentation is, and is an example of how engrossingly twisted theatre can be.
Image: Tim Foley