My Gay Toronto - MGT Stage

Freda and Jem's Best of the Week:
a butch for all seasons

by Drew Rowsome

A lovable lug of a butch dyke wanders into a dance bar and seduces a sexy flirtatious lipstick lesbian. Family ensues. Family, comedy and heartbreak.

Freda and Jem's Best of the Week is a dramedy that intertwines two equally intriguing and harmonically dissonant stories. In a series of monologues, Jem explains what life is like for a butch dyke. As played by Kathryn Haggis, Jem is funny, touching and a captivating presence. Playwright Lois Fine has given Haggis a great gift of words that are lyrical while remaining naturalistic and Haggis runs with them to create a stand-up routine without any of the neediness or shtick. She is the woman at the bar whose story fascinates, entertains and draws an audience in. Most importantly we understand why Freda, Diane Flacks in high femme mode, and the children love Jem so intensely.

The second strand, the drama, in Freda and Jem's Best of the Week comes from the dissolution of Jem and Freda's sexual partnership, marriage and parenting responsibilities. The family is torn apart while it struggles to stay together. Anger is vented, pain is expressed and love, alas, does not conquer all. Fine does not shy away from the tough emotions and the text is raw and very real. This parallel story also has one-liners embedded in the angst with Stephen Joffe as the troubled son getting rueful laughs that echo the ones earned by Haggis. The scenes between the siblings, Sadie Epstein-Fine is the daughter, unfold with particular strength and create a three-dimensional, complicated web of relationships.

Once again Buddies has created a stunning and deceptively simple stage design - a multi-layered altar that provides platforms and metaphors in abundance - on which the actors move in a stylized choreography that is occasionally at odds, often in tandem, with the intensity of the words. The story moves forward and back in time, but every moment is crystal clear and coherent, wonderfully enhanced by pin-point lighting that is as choreographed as the movements. Director Judith Thompson has shaped two simple honest stories into a powerful cross-examination of just what familial and romantic love mean. The symbolism of candles and sitting shiva is presented almost subliminally and is all the more devastating for the subtlety.

The live music accompaniment by Lorraine Segato is by turns augmenting, then obtrusive. When underlining or complementing it is breathtakingly stark and fragile, when it muscles its way centre stage through either amplification or an unfortunate ending number, it is distracting. 

While lesbian parenting is no longer a novelty, butch dykes are - to my knowledge - sadly under-represented in the cultural zeitgeist. As embodied by Haggis, Jem is a delightful creation that shatters stereotypes and deserves to reach more than niche exposure. Hopefully a broad spectrum of audience sexualities, genders and levels of butchness will partake of Freda and Jem's Best of the Week because, as the hoary old Tolstoy quote says, "All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This butch dyke, this unusually usual family, is universal and will appeal to all. 

(Small disclaimer: playwright Lois Fine is an old friend, a former housemate and someone with serious activist credentials. My big concern, especially when the program used words like "poetic" and "brave," was that Freda and Jem's Best of the Week would be a polemic or off-puttingly arty, and/or I would be unable to be critical. Don't make the same mistake, Freda and Jem's Best of the Week is as entertaining as it is poetic and political, and the two gay men who sat just in front of me laughed uproariously and daubed their eyes even more than I did.)

Freda and Jem's Best of the Week continues until Sun, Oct 5 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St.