Sarah Segal-Lazar is a master of the big idea and the quirky detail. Her latest production, Don’t Read the Comments is a fantastic concept piece about the grey areas of consent and assault, combining about 40 minutes of a talk show in the bouffon style (great work by Cara Krisman, Gabe Maharjan, Joy Ross-Jones, and Dakota Jamal Wellman) with 20 minutes of non-fiction storytelling (Segal-Lazar). I’m insatiably curious how Segal-Lazar conceived the piece, since the two do not instinctively come together well, and yet they mesh here for a perfect production.
Things begin with the actual audience serving as the audience for what we are told is a live taping of the talk show Don’t Read The Comments. Sparkling and charismatic Oprah-esque host Wendy introduces her three-person panel: a raging contemporary feminist, a woke bro youtuber, and a less-than-savvy legislator. Wendy asks the panelists questions like “Are there such things as grey areas?” and their stereotypical identities respond somewhat in turn. Mostly not in-turn.
These clowns get all the best lines. Panelist and NY state legislator Cindy Nancy Cindy says, “I’ve handled lots of bills — Cosby, Clinton.” Trip, the youtuber, invites his viewers to follow his journey as both a victim and an accused assailant next week. There’s a parody of a sexual consent contract signing and a re-enactment of how a woman should call a cab to get out of an uncomfortable situation. Although there’s more shouting than is comfortable, and sometimes they step on each other’s lines, the comedy is edgy, fresh, and aware. Their words and positions could be found easily on Twitter, Insta, Facebook, and any comments section in any corner of the Internet. The hyper-sexual nature of bouffon comedy is a perfect fit.
Although still set in the context of a live-taping of the TV show, the mood changes when Segal-Lazar comes to the stage to tell a non-fiction story about a young woman hosteling her way through Europe. What the clowns make so clear so easily about enthusiastic consent is no longer quite as black and white. Real world sex is blurred by details. What constitutes a “yes”? Why do women end up in situations where sex is unwanted and even “avoidable”, but still happens? The chilling situation is a familiar reality that sucks.
Here’s where the concept component of the show comes in. The expectations and experiences of listeners impact how any story resonates. The show ends by asking the audience to vote. It feels like a strange sort of test — does the message of the clowns get through? Was this some kind of school thing where I was supposed to learn something? For anyone who hesitates in responding, even for a millisecond, this final vote spotlights the disconnect between the real world and the media, as well as pointing out that the media shapes opinions for better or worse.
Overall, Don’t Read the Comments is an excellent piece of political theatre that journeys far from the nostalgic loneliness of Talk Mackerel and the buxom whimsy of In Memoriam. All five perform with heart and soul.
Don’t Read the Comments continues at Espace Freestanding now through June 17 as part of the St. Ambroise Montreal FRINGE Festival. For tickets, click HERE. Find out all shows and info at montrealfringe.ca. Montreal Rampage coverage of the Fringe Festival includes reviews of Greasy, Dance Side of the Moon, Buyer and Cellar, and Rootless Tree.