Compiled by: Liza Birkenmeier
Director: Katie Brook
Reviewer: Adrienne Sowers
In recent years, countless people have quoted Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Largely because it’s true. And women are often afraid to laugh at men, because setting off someone’s temper makes the fear of being harmed all the more palpable.
So it is a cathartic treat to openly snicker, chuckle, and even guffaw at toxic, fragile masculinity in Islander, created by Liza Birkenmeier and Katie Brook. At the August 26 performance at HERE Arts Center, an audience, comprised of mostly femme-presenting patrons, filled the space with laughter. The source of our amusement – an “everyman” of white fragile toxic masculinity, embodied brilliantly by an engaging David Gould. This composite character’s dialogue is compiled from material surrounding the disastrous 2017-2018 hockey season for the New York Islanders. Snippets of sports coverage, player interviews, and podcasts about the team’s performance are masterfully woven together by Birkenmeier and coalesce into an effed-up sort of glory under Brook’s impeccable direction.
Islander is an unflinching satire exploring the consequences of our culture’s acquiescence to the celebration of mediocrity and entitlement. The main character, simply named “Man,” believes he deserves to win simply because he wants to. He rarely takes responsibility for his actions and has all the self-awareness of a hockey puck. The juxtaposition of the inflation of ego against the glimmers of reality — “I’ve kind of glossed over the fact that I’m not that good” – create a sort of sad irony that is hilarious in its accuracy.
Gould’s Man is mostly alone onstage for the seventy-five minute play, though he is eventually joined by Other Man (Dick Toth) and John (Aksel Latham-Mitchell). The only named character in the play, John (presumably based on John Tavares, who left the Islanders for the Maple Leafs after the flop of a season referenced in the show) is played by a fifth grader, who is on the receiving end of a hideous, name-calling tantrum from the adult Man. Other Man is older than Man by about twenty or so years, and is carelessly critical of Man – in one moment, Other Man cheers on John (offstage) for an OT-ending goal and as he does so, blatantly ignores Man’s sobbing. These surreally uncomfortable moments amid the satire stand out as a reminder of the generational perpetuation of these toxic behaviors.
For as deep as this show is with is darkly complex theme, it is incredibly funny. By decentralizing these characters and making them unnamed composites, it is easier to laugh at the embodied concept rather than an individual; the depersonalization allows the audience to strip away empathy and truly examine the absurdity of toxic masculinity in its most essential state. It is a skilled subversion of a pervasive threat within our culture, and should absolutely not be missed.
Runs Through 4 September 2021 | Photo Credit: Maria Baranova