Sexual assault in the world of Friend or Unfriend: Tell Us What Happened at Workshop West. A review.

Michelle Diaz, Matt Dejanovic, Bonnie Ings, Gabby Bernard (above), Jameela McNeil in Tell Us What Happened, Workshop West. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In Michelle Robb’s tense new play, premiering at Workshop West in Heather Inglis’s production, young characters slam up hard against complicated questions — at contradictory angles.

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But here’s the rub: they live in a world that trashes complication, social media either-or’s, For or Against, Follow or Unfollow, Friend or Unfriend, Like or Delete.  

True, these roommates share a real-life apartment, with a real door, a real fridge, a real couch, Red Bull, junk food (designer: Brian Bast). And the play and Inglis’s production convincingly and at length set up a collegiate domestic scene in all its jostling dynamic, interruptions, cross-hatched exchanges, running teases. So, yes, there is a “real” world. But it’s just a landing pad for occasional use. 

Clutching their cellphones, the characters ricochet through a twinkling galaxy of keyboard symbols and happy, sad and heart emojis (designer: Ian Jackson). And their soundtrack (designer Kiidra Duhault) is the ubiquitous percussion of computer clicks and pings.  

Charlie (Bonnie Ings) and her roommates run a private Facebook group called Tell Us What Happened with 438 members and a worthy goal: to provide an online “safe space” where members can share their stories and be listened, believed unconditionally, supported.

Robb, who wrote the play at age 20 (she’s now 25), puts the idea of the internet as a “safe space” up for perusal, and finds that it explodes on contact. The only narrative arc in social media is escalation. There’s no such thing as a throwaway line or self-exploration; every impulsive reaction is written in indelible ink, and spreads. The same thought powers the musical Dear Evan Hansen, as the title teenage protagonist discovers, to his sorrow. 

And as for the internet as an instrument of justice, Robb’s play wonders about that, too. Which is brave, because the issue at hand couldn’t be more horrifying: sexual assault. 

Tell Us What Happened, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo supplied

When their friend Leah (Jameela McNeil), a 17-year-old university student, posts to the group that she’s been sexually assaulted after a drunken party, others report similar experiences … with the same young man. It’s prime Tell Us What Happened FB territory, and the roommates prepare to step up on behalf of the victim, in ways they’ve mandated. But the terrible fracturing discovery that the serial transgressor is Josh (Matt Dejanovic), an amiable pal to all and Charlie’s best friend, puts the group into crisis mode.

For Charlie, torn between the competing calls of social conscience and friendship, it’s a nightmare. Not least because the FB group was her idea and Josh was the stand-up friend who came to her rescue when she herself was sexually brutalized as a young teenager. 

Of Charlie’s two roommates, Zoey (Michelle Diaz), Leah’s cousin, is the fiery enforcer of “group protocol,” who has no inside voice and is one of those rare people who probably shouldn’t give up smoking. She knows no such ambivalence, countenances no nuanced response. When Charlie struggles, Zoey is remorseless. “Good things don’t count if a bad person did them,” she says definitively. When Leah expresses uncertainties about what happened to her, Zoey pushes her through them towards a public interface, on the grounds that “the system must change” and “it’s our time to win.”  

Piper (the appealing Gabby Bernard), who has taken refuge from heartbreak in art, is more obliquely involved, there to be enlisted as an ally. As stress is upped, she begins to lose her grip; she’s collateral damage on shaky legs. 

Meanwhile, “a storm of sad emojis” rages through social media, gathering force. And the stress fractures widen, dividing a household and a community of friends, upping the stakes. It’s a tense evening of questions and mounting dread: by the end I found I’d been clutching my reading glasses so hard in one hand I’d bent them out of shape.

In wondering about justice, and what that might mean in the forum of instant judgment where musing can’t happen. Tell Us What Happened does treat Leah seriously. How could it not? As McNeil’s performance conveys, she has been traumatized, changed by the experience of sexual assault. Unusually, though, this is a play that’s not really about the victim. It’s about the consequences of sexual assault on other people, and the pursuit of justice, or even some sort of emotional reckoning, in the time of social media.

It takes time, two intermission-less hours, but seems to need its hammering duration to build to a gut-wrenching finale. In a repertoire of foregone conclusions, this new play is impressively fearless.

REVIEW

Tell Us What Happened

Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre

Written by: Michelle Robb

Directed by: Heather Inglis

Starring: Gabby Bernard, Matt Dejanovic, Michelle Diaz, Bonnie Ings, Jameela McNeil

Where: The Gateway Theatre, 8429 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through May 22

Tickets: workshopwest.org

  

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