Earlier this week, I, along with thousands across the country, watched with rapt attention as Christine Blasey Ford shared her testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the sexual assault she experienced as a teenager, at the hands of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. I admired the woman I saw who spoke so clearly and succinctly, yet emotionally, about a trauma that has followed her throughout her adult life. I then watched as Kavanaugh raged and acted above reproach in his refusal to answer questions, unable to believe that this was happening. Later that evening, I went to a performance of Happy Hour by Monica Bill Barnes & Company, where I felt a similar experience: not necessarily a catharsis, but one that was extremely relevant to what the day’s earlier events had laid before me.
Created in 2015, Happy Hour portrays a relationship between two men, their desire to prove their masculinity, and their feelings of rejection when that is not achieved. The show was performed by Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass, two female-identifying individuals, and was characteristically placed in an intimate setting (in this rendition, the audience was seated on stage at Kingsbury Hall alongside the performers). An artificial sense of camaraderie was achieved by the Utah-approved snacks available on the way in and the paper decorations on the walls, mimicking an office party, and the evening’s host, Robbie Saenz de Viteri, made small talk and remembered everyone’s names.
From the start, Barnes and Bass fully embodied their characters, from the micro-facial movements to their choice of makeup (minimal, yet giving their faces more angularity) to their intense yet subtle physical posture and choreography. The majority of the choreography seemed to stem from a classical modern dance, and male-oriented, vernacular, reminiscent of Jerome Robbins’ leg tosses and Gene Kelly’s tap vocabulary. However, Barnes and Bass maintained a sternness and cockiness in their demeanors, indicating that their movements were not for the performance’s or audience’s sake but were a means to a specific goal. The dancers’ characters were cool and above reproach, yet when Bass fell, her character was distraught and angry until the audience built them back up again with cued applause.
While the evening began as comedic, and stayed that way for some audience members, Happy Hour took an extremely dark turn for me about third of the way through. Focusing their attention on a 20-year-old woman in the audience (although not a plant, host Saenz de Viteri had singled her out before the show and made sure we all knew her age), the dancers took her belongings, gave them to her seat mates, brought her to sit in a chair in the performance space, and proceeded to try to seduce her. The seduction was over-the-top and appeared as though it was meant to be funny but, evoking the Blasey Ford hearing earlier in the day, the discomfort felt by both the woman and audience was palpable. What made this so fascinating was that even though I knew it was women portraying these male characters, I was still taken aback by the bluntness of their choice. Bass was ultimately “successful,” leading the woman away; this, coupled with her prior physicality and facial expressions, prompted a visceral reaction of anger in me.
Throughout the rest of the piece, this exploration of masculinity continued, as Barnes and Bass serenaded another female audience member with “Build Me Up Buttercup,” continuing the theme. The woman they were serenading (full disclosure: it was me!) certainly did nothing to build up the characters, yet they were again distraught and seemed to induce guilt for being turned down.
The goal of Happy Hour as I perceived it was achieved. By creating a portrait of male characters as portrayed by female bodies, commentary was inserted through comedy. And while Barnes and Bass were portraying characters, their embodiment did not come from a place without examples. They presumably had a plethora of examples to study and emulate, and they did so with uncomfortable accuracy. It may be easy to see their portrayals as comedic, but they are anything but: “Boys will be boys” is not something to laugh at so much as something to be prevented.
By the end of the show, I found myself feeling slightly bad for Barnes’ and Bass’s characters, as a result of the narrative of rejection presented and the musical journey we had been taken on - but I truly wish that I hadn’t. This speaks to the power of theater and to the power of being a woman sharing these stories. In the Judiciary Committee hearing, Blasey Ford punctuated her testimony with jokes and laughter; Monica Bill Barnes punctuated Happy Hour with comedy and a traditional narrative that made it more comfortable to swallow. Someday, I hope we can just say it like it is.
Natalie Gotter is a performer, choreographer, instructor, filmmaker, and researcher. She recently completed an MFA in modern dance at the University of Utah and is a faculty member at Utah Valley University, Westminster College, and Salt Lake Community College.