Shawn’s A Thought in Three Parts Bares All, Misses The Mark

Judy (Brett Dahl) and Dick (Craig McCue), "Youth Hostel." Photo Credit: Jaime Vedres Photography.

Judy (Brett Dahl) and Dick (Craig McCue), “The Youth Hostel.” Photo Credit: Jaime Vedres Photography.

“You will see penises, you will see asses and tits and vaginas,” warns Theatre Outré’s Artistic Director Jay Whitehead in the program notes to Wallace Shawn’s A Thought in Three Parts.

Of course, audiences would expect nothing less from a play that was accused of being ‘pornographic’ and morally offensive during its initial run in 1976. But surprisingly, full-frontal nudity and simulated sex acts are what least offend in Theatre Outre’s production of Shawn’s provocative play.

Presented at Motel Theatre, A Thought in Three Parts stages three vignettes that explore loneliness, the desire for intimacy in its various forms, through different sexual dynamics.

The first, “Summer Evening,” sees a sexually frustrated couple returning to their hotel room. Lost in their respective inner monologues, David (Ryan Reese) and Sarah (Samantha Jefferey) seem to say everything but what they truly want to share with their partner, that is their utmost intimate desires. Sarah’s violent fantasies are deflected by David who, despite craving Sarah’s sensual touch, attempts to satisfy his partner with other activities like reading.

In saying just about anything to bury his own desires, David’s discomfort towards sex inhibits Sarah’s ability for sexual expression. Sarah’s fantasies eek out overtime as she bypasses the guilt of wanting pleasure. Sarah claiming voice at the end is a vital step in Shawn’s march towards sexual revolution whereupon communication between the sexes is untethered from oppressive social values.

Shawn and Whitehead lose the audience in “The Youth Hostel.”

Here, in this second vignette, four turbulent youth run between each others’ rooms, engaging in various sexual acts. Beyond the thrill of participation, the sex means little for the emotionally detached youth.

The sexual mischief is over-the-top and becomes increasingly so as the scene goes on. Whitehead’s direction leaves the audience with no room to collect themselves during the mischief. But as the action becomes more and more outlandish, Shawn’s writing begins to show its age.

40 years ago, Shawn undoubtedly set out to ruffle feathers with A Thought in Three Parts. Shawn’s intent to offend being part of this campaign to challenge repressive attitudes towards sex. But with sexuality in mainstream media becoming increasingly normalized and the internet beginning anew once stifled conversations, the playwright’s aggressive tactics feel stale, irrelevant in the modern age. And Whitehead’s frantic direction of “The Youth Hostel” highlights the fact in the way it tries to divert our attention away from the lack of substance in Shawn’s script.

There is still this real message that genuine human connection is complicated, if not interrupted, by the politics of sex as Shawn demonstrates in a moment that causes pause.

When all the fun and games are done, Judy (Brett Dahl) retreats to her room where her abusive boyfriend Tom (Samuel Benty) joins her. Judy follows a script when she talks to Tim, making sure to say the right things as to not offend Tom, who is unemployed. When she says the wrong thing, Tim hits her; Judy’s body becomes a territory Tim (re)asserts his control over.

It is a powerful moment where Shawn laments our patriarchal society and the abuses perpetrated by its unfair politics. But it is a brief moment, one that offers respite from Shawn’s pageantry of shock.

“Mr. Frivolous” ends the evening with a solitary figure (Jay Whitehead) caught reminiscing about a lost romance. A quieter scene, “Mr. Frivolous” brings around the evening’s central theme of loneliness, the need for presence in our lives.

Whitehead, again in the program notes, seems so sure that the play is more relevant than ever in this age of hook up apps and sexting, of social disconnect. And maybe it is, but unfortunately the weight of antiquated novelty crushes the potential for relevant social commentary. The playwright’s critical voice is lost amidst a crude script that aims to offend first, engage second. A missed opportunity certainly, but not totally as Shawn does manage to plant seedlings in our minds by the end.

Wallace Shawn’s A Thought in Three Parts swings in every direction, every once in awhile landing a hit, but ultimately tires itself out.


Theatre Outré’s production of Wallace Shawn’s A Thought in Three Parts ran at Motel Theatre, Mar 31 – Apr 4, 2015.

For more information about the show, visit: http://www.theatreoutre.ca/season/a-thought-in-three-parts/

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