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Happy Birthday Baby J is a stunning exploration of parental choices and gender identity

Shadow Theatre mounts the world premiere of Nick Green's take on political correctness
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2901 Shadow Theatre - Happy Birthday Baby J 02 -  photo by Marc J. Chalifoux c
As the booze flows, tempers flare and society's niceties fly by the wayside in Shadow Theatre's production of Happy Birthday Baby J. Clockwise from back left - Chantal Perron, Patricia Cerra, Mathew Hulshof and Cameron Grant. MARC J CHALIFOUX PHOTOGRAPHY/Photo

REVIEW

Happy Birthday Baby J

Shadow Theatre production

Runs until Feb. 9

Varscona Theatre

10329 – 83 Ave.

Tickets: Start at $22 Available at shadowtheatre.org

Baby J is a boy. Or is Baby J a girl? We, the audience do not know the two-year-old’s sex, nor apparently do some of the characters. Confusing? You bet. So why is it important?

In Shadow Theatre’s world premiere of Happy Birthday Baby J now playing at Varscona Theatre, the child’s parents have chosen to keep Baby J’s gender a secret. The politically correct Gary and Louise are raising Baby J as gender neutral.

What is heartbreaking is that their parental choice possibly denies the child an opportunity to inhabit the body he/she was born with. On the opposite side of the coin, their poorly thought-out decision also takes away the child’s choice to select a gender.

Playwright Nick Green’s newest work is a powerful piece that pierces through society’s standard conventions like shards of glass ripping through fabric. And at times it’s very uncomfortable.

Director John Hudson, a father himself, manoeuvres the at times funny, at times off-putting scenes with practised grace. He is one of those talented directors who demonstrate a gift for making complex material easily understandable to audiences.

We first meet Gary, a middle-aged university professor, and Louise, an oncology nurse, on the day of Baby J’s second birthday. The duo’s two-story upper middle class home is trendy, spacious and airy – quite the opposite of the trapped vibe the couple projects.

Louise, a loud showoff, (Chantal Perron) is desperately trying to tell Gary (David Ley) a gossipy story of how preschool mothers use their children as weapons of status.

He half-heartedly listens while giving the appearance of suffering in silence. Both leave the impression they would rather cancel the party. However, guests are arriving and Louise insists the show must go on.

The guests are Patrick (Mathew Hulshof), Louise’s coworker, an insecure, foul-mouthed navel-gazer who has an instinct for pushing emotionally sensitive buttons.

Accompanying him is his latest lover, Karomie (Cameron Grant), a sweet, polite guy who quickly becomes a target for Patrick’s jabs.

Added to the mix is Megan (Patricia Cerra), a university instructor saddled with 10 years of student loan debt and a great deal of suppressed anger.

The only one not invited to this adult-only party is Baby J, who is discussed but never physically introduced.

Alcohol is generously poured, food is lavishly eaten and tongues are quickly loosened. Running as a densely packed one-act, Happy Birthday Baby J not only targets gender identity, it also takes a swing at racism, misogyny and gender inequity in the workplace.

It’s a highly combustible mix of dysfunctional people playing mind games that predictably end with huge explosion. Throughout it all, the actors push and pull the play’s tension maintaining expert command over every scene.

But despite all the name-calling, broken relationships and emotional devastation, Green ends the play with Louise speaking quietly to a sleeping Baby J. It’s a powerful image that delivers a hopeful note of understanding and change.


Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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