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A Personal Response to Daughter

By Tanja Jacobs 

It’s a long time since I sat in auditorium after a show with so many people who didn’t want to leave.

Daughter, created by Adam Lazarus with his collaborators Ann-Marie Kerr, Melissa D’Agostino and Jiv Parasram is performed by Lazarus, solo. The first expectation of the show comes via the poster: an ultra-modern portrait; ironic, grim, hilarious. A strong white man defeated by a little girl’s utter disregard.

The next thing to look forward to comes by the thrilling pre-show set design – everyone’s favourite – a wooden stool, a microphone on a stand, a glass of water, a sexy lighting state.

My heart soars: these are the emblems of subversion; an intelligent comedian will say shit that slays us, and all of it will be true.

When Adam Lazarus enters dressed in clothes favoured by a five-year-old girl – tutu, headband, fairy wings – and promptly takes the stool, microphone and mike-stand and stashes them off-stage, we’re meant to understand that all of our expectations will be subverted.

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He is disarmingly authentic; centred, present, relaxed. He’s going to be himself; talking to us, sans microphone, for real, about domestic life at a level of detailed attention that heterosexual men mostly don’t bother with.

I’ll admit freely that I have a low threshold for theatre that attempts to take me hostage. The fashion of scaring people with deafening sound or with threatened depictions of torture, or the ritual of pretending to lock the audience into an auditorium just before the descriptions of child-rape savage the public’s consciousness – these actions indeed create dread and tension but they are a cheat. And arguably, they are a theft. A violent noise is actually a violent noise, it is not the representation of one. Representation is the phenomenon of double-ness that makes theatre meaningful. The event being represented is true and it is artificial at the same time. This liberates the imagination to follow the implications of the event as an act of discovery. The public can surrender to grief without worrying about having to witness the aftermath outside the theatre: a hearse taking the bodies away. This freedom can permit fresh courage in some individuals. It can allow us to have empathy for our enemies.

Rather than assaulting the public, a much more sophisticated complicity is achieved by risking the audience’s refusal to collude. This means something is really at stake for the artists on stage. This very smart show tests our willingness to go along in a way that is transparent, but sly at the same time. The character onstage seizes every laugh or utterance from the public as an affirmation of his complaints, his confessions and ultimately, his allegiance to a secret and extreme masculinity.

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Two things happen here: the performance draws our attention to our silence and simultaneously, it draws our attention away from the precise moment when our audible response was pick-pocketed and added as evidence to the case being built: that the current climate has made it impossible for men to be themselves.

Early in the show before the character admits to his first violent act – and for which he asks directly for the public’s judgement: “Do any of you have a problem with that?” — Lazarus’s character describes his young daughter’s exhausting — and trying – behaviour by relating the difficulty of her behaviour with the difficulty of her birth. Although he never explicitly states it, we sense he believes his daughter torments him simply because she is a girl.

Adam Lazarus’s character provides a ladder of worsening examples of his lack of empathy for girls – not all girls; mainly the losers — reaching back to his own childhood. This structure is a reassurance; it cues the audience to trust the artist: “Well, this performer knows where he is going.” His remembered absence of feeling for these sorry girls manifests as acts of mounting absurdity and cruelty. After describing an unprompted exposure of his penis as a five-year old boy to girls he found funny, the character exclaims with wonder: “…and no one did anything!” We yelp with laughter, not knowing this claim will haunt us by the end of the show and will pursue us for weeks, for months and probably for years.

The morning after I saw the production, I wrote: “Daughter is a dazzling example of what Brecht was after: art that produces alertness. The work itself demonstrates how we – collectively and as individuals – become desensitized to shock and then endanger our ability to judge our own collusion.” The best writers for the theatre are engaged in this very project – think of the plays of Wallace Shawn, Caryl Churchill, Martin Crimp. Is there a better use for theatre than re-sensitizing us to the micro-moments of divorce from our humanness?

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In the recent days, dramatic events in our own milieu demand thoughtful reflection on hierarchy and gender. This outstanding and scary play by Adam Lazarus, Jiv Parasram, Melissa D’Agostino and Ann-Marie Kerr remains squarely in our eye-line, reminding us not to get used to the old ‘normal’.

I am prompted to unpack my bewilderment. On one hand, the abrupt exposure of hypocrisy and bullying by so many men in positions of authority reveals a simple truth: men do not want to share the workplace with women. In the arena, they want the women out. On the other hand, we have a very complicated relationship with silence. Do we have a right to remain silent? People remain silent for many reasons. Fear often keeps people silent. But so does the effect of having a character in a play — or a celebrity in an election campaign — snatch at our laughter to prove what he is saying is true: “Am I right? Right?… Right.” We laughed because it was funny but now it is too late; our laughter is our collusion. In other circumstances our collusion is silence.

We live in an age where nothing exists that cannot be exploited and commodified, and where people are lied to as a matter of routine. Caution and silence are hard to give up.

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When Daughter ended, many people simply weren’t willing to leave – they needed not silence, but to talk to each other. Clusters of audience leaning in to each other, needing to hear each voice: “What is this play saying?!” “When was the critical moment he became an antagonist? When should I have shouted/stood/booed?!”

Was it when he imitated his little daughter’s dance and for a brief moment performed a highly sexualized bit – a stripper’s moves – but then instantly assured us he was just kidding? Was it when he claimed he injured his shoulder as a result of hurling his daughter back to bed after being relentlessly harassed and awakened by her in the night for no good reason? Was it when he admitted he watched the rest of the Japanese porn video, alone, after he and his buddies had deemed it too demeaning to continue watching?

The theatre gives us a chance to practice. It allows us to know what we are most afraid of. It can demonstrate the magnitude of the machinery that would have us sustain the status quo. Theatre can frame the very mechanism that prompts our collusion with silence. It can show us how we reward the ‘maverick’ on our stage with laughter, or by giving him the keys to the Oval Office.

Tanja Jacobs is an award-winning theatre artist based in Toronto. She is a recent graduate of the York MFA program in stage direction in collaboration with Canadian Stage. This spring she will co-direct, with Alistair Newton, Caryl Churchill’s celebrated play Love and Information, opening in April at the Berkeley Street theatre. 

Photos by John Lauener