Shit: strong performances emerge from a distancing script

Increasingly, Sharon Crandall, who plays Bob in Shit, is making her presence felt as a dramatic actor. 

For a script with such an earthy title, Shit is oddly abstract.

In Shit, Australian playwright Patricia Cornelius presents us with three incarcerated women. Billy, Bob, and Sam have all grown up in foster care and they have all been brutalized sexually, emotionally, and physically. They have also committed a serious crime together, which is why they’re in jail: exactly what they’ve done becomes clearer as the play unfolds. “Do you think someone’s going to save us?” Sam asks. “We’re way past saving,” Billy replies.

Cornelius has constructed her text musically. It begins with an overture of fucks. All three women spew the expletive as if they’re gleefully shooting bullets at machine-gun pace. They compete to see if anyone can get through a sentence without saying “fuck”. They criticize one another’s facility: “You’re not usin’ it well.” And they revel in the energy of fuck and cunt: “The life in them words!”

Over the next 50 minutes, Cornelius varies the music in a series of short monologues, scenes, and passages of movement that are separated by blackouts. Sam wonders what it would be like to get comfort from a maternal figure: she imagines a woman named Caitlin with “big titties.” “I want a house. I want a dog. Two dogs,” Sam says before the others shut her up because she wants too much. Billy claims that she’s never cried and doesn’t really feel pain. Bob, who is trans, gestures towards her vulva and says, “This is not me. This has nothing to do with me.”

This is all heavy shit. So why did I care so little? Why did my female companion care so little? I think it’s the abstraction—the showing in the writing—and its showiness. The playwright gives us harrowing…generalities. Billy, Bob, and Sam agree that they hated it when the endless string of foster parents they encountered all wanted to be called Mom and Dad, for instance. But almost none of the women’s stories contain the kind of details that would make them really resonate. To me, it feels like Shit is so busy being “daring”, so busy being outraged, that it does a disservice to the realm of experience it’s presenting by depersonalizing it.

Still, all three actors in this production do impressive work with the material.

Within Sam’s hunched posture and baseline expression of dolorous shock, I barely recognized actor Yoshié Bancroft. Kayla Deorksen makes Billy credibly—desperately—bulletproof. And Sharon Crandall finds impressive authenticity in Bob’s relative stillness.

I gained no insight from the text, though.

In response to an emailed question about the playwright, Donna Spencer, who directed this production, wrote, “Through the theatre company Patricia established in Melbourne, she created programs for low-income and working-class individuals. For Shit and other plays, she undertook research and met with women with similar experiences to the characters of the play.”

Fair enough. But it still feels to me like, in Shit, Cornelius is going, “Look at those women! Haven’t they been through terrible things! Isn’t it marvellous how vital they still are!” Look at those women over there. This play does not feel like an inside job.

SHIT By Patricia Cornelius. A Firehall Arts Centre production directed by Donna Spencer. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Friday, February 2. Continues until February 10.

Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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