This one woman show uses puppets to explore what it means to be a 'messy bitch'
Jessica Rae's empowering performance is a highlight of Montreal Fringe
When Jessica Rae struts across the stage in her one-woman show Messy Bitch, hurling those very words as a well-worn badge of honour rather than an insult, it's obvious she's not the only bitch up there – she's brought a few of her friends, lovingly made by hand and waiting for her to bring them to life.
"Puppets allow me to have all these other characters on stage, jump around in time, work outside of a linear narrative and channel my personality in a larger-than-life way," says Rae of the show she created with costume designer Renée Sawtelle and director Hannah Dorozio.
Employing puppets in this universal tale of strong, proud, messy bitches everywhere makes a perfect, surreal kind of sense. "Most of the time women are called bitches not because they're being jerks but because they're standing up for themselves and using their voice, taking up space, protecting their boundaries," says Rae, yet "having a voice is the only way to exist in the world and still be the most generous that you can be," adds Sawtelle – puppets multiply one person's voice on stage in impressively physical ways, regardless of what anyone name-calls them.
For Rae, who studied dance at Concordia University and is a burlesque performer, making her puppets has been as much fun as performing. Her first forays into puppetry came through a class at Concordia and as a volunteer with community-minded puppet cabaret Café Concrete. When she wanted to make a large puppet that could convincingly represent her alter-ego and be a character in itself, she asked her friend Christopher Godziuk, of puppetry-based Panadream Theatre, to mentor her. From there, her first puppet Lydia sprung forth, a complex rebel with arched brows, heavy black bangs and that smile that many women know well, landing somewhere between friendly and leave-me-the-f-f--k-alone.
"It's crazy how much love you have for a puppet you've created," Rae said. Also in the puppet cast: Sally, a glamorous cosmetician in the form of a large puppet head swathed in fabric from the neck down; and a giant cat face sporting fake eyelashes and a fabulously pursed lips.
In both comically exaggerated anecdotes drawn from Rae's life and serious moments that convey the sting the word "bitch" can have, the energetic play gets down to what its title really means, emphasis on the real.
"Our initial concept came out of experiences that we've both encountered," Rae explains, "and seeing how the word 'bitch' floats around us – sometimes it's empowering but more often than not it's used as a derogatory term, with different connotations depending on who's saying it."
And the messy part? Rae explains that it's about owning your mess and saying, "'Yeah, that's a part of my life; I'm also really organized and have good ideas, but I also like whiskey. It's about saying 'it's okay if my shit isn't all together. I like to go to bars and get drunk and have sex.' Those topics – women doing what they want to do, women having that kind of equality – are still considered edgy by some people. That inspired us to do something: all these double standards we encounter are real and still happening."
Under the stage lights, music cranked, Jessica Rae dances with her arms wide above her head in victory, a million-watt smile on her face, her puppets a bizarro cheering squad – she's a bitch, she's a mess, and everyone in the theatre wants to dance along with her.