Allyson McMackon revisits The Stronger Variations after nine years.
THE STRONGER VARIATIONS by the company, conceived and directed by Allyson McMackon, with Liza Balkan, Andrya Duff, Chala Hunter, Viv Moore and Lucy Rupert. Presented by Theatre Rusticle at Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander). Opens Thursday (November 27) and runs to December 7, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $27-$37, Sunday pwyc, some $20 rush. 416-975-8555.
The reputedly misogynistic August Strindberg would be surprised at what Theatre Rusticle's Allyson McMackon has done with his short play The Stronger.
A Christmas Eve confrontation between a wife and her husband's mistress, the script is an exchange of catty remarks and implied put-downs. In 2005, Theatre Rusticle presented its first take on the material, combining movement and text in a series of variations between the two characters.
McMackon and her company - including Lucy Rupert, Viv Moore and Liza Balkan, who were in the original production - return to the material with new faces Andrya Duff and Chala Hunter, again examining what strength means in the context of female relationships and whether winning is what the exchange is about.
"It's nine years since the Fringe production, and both Rusticle and the performers have grown," says McMackon, who has also done a version of the show involving three men as well as another last year performed by her students at York University.
"Presenting it again as part of the Buddies season lets us focus on who we are as women today and how these two characters can be presented in all their possible adaptations."
Over the course of some 16 scenes, the five performers switch roles as they pursue the nature of true strength in encounters that range from the comic to the savage.
"Is strength the ability to control another?" asks the director. "Is it to keep safe what you have in life, such as your family? Being able to chart your own course regardless of what society asks of you? And is it stronger to speak or to be silent even if silence is seen as a weakness?
"When we ask these questions we bring up how we've been taught to be women: to be polite or quiet, to sit on what we need, whether it's sexual, social, political or personal, the whole nine yards."
In the original, the wife's just been shopping for presents for her children, gifts that suggest what's appropriate for men and women in her society: a knife for her son and a doll for her daughter.
The wife hints half-humorously that she might stab the mistress with the knife, but more telling is her description of the doll, who "can roll her eyes and turn her head," which seems to make the toy a marvel.
"But at another level any woman is like this doll. Her function is to be pretty, keep her yap shut and take care of people, especially the men in her life. That idea is supported in our production by the 1950s setting, with its Dior silhouettes. The time was repressive for women."
The company is mostly female, which creates a vibe in the rehearsal hall that McMackon calls "relaxed. The performers can take risks when dealing with hurt, rage or confusion. There's less pressure to get it right, to be correct, and we all feel comfortable trying out the different paths that come up in rehearsal. Some of the choices are radically different from previous versions of the show."
She points out that Strindberg's original 1888 production was semi-autobiographical, since his actual wife and mistress played the two characters.
"Maybe in claiming the work in our own fashion and for ourselves," she says with a smile, "we're trying to turn Strindberg into a feminist."