Contemporary Comedy is Bang-On: A Review of Banging Denmark by Van Badham
By Riley Treisman
We live in interesting times.
The #MeToo wave has swept through our cultural currents, dismantling masculine toxicity and embedded misogyny. Women are demanding - or at least politely requesting - that they be called women, not “females” (a word which lumps them together with birds, bears, bees or beavers). They’re denouncing sex worker exclusionary feminists (SWERFS). They’re working to make sure men feel safe expressing their emotions, or typically “feminine” traits. Men, meanwhile, are calling out sexual harassment in their day-to-day lives, no longer repulsed by the F-word.
At the same time, sex tourism in Mexico is booming, with American men crossing the border to escape the “witch hunt” of the #MeToo movement. Online communities of forever-friendzoned men band together in the deep, dark depths of the internet, spewing hatred and misogyny.
These are the times into which Van Badham’s Banging Denmark was born. Directed by Jessica Arthur, the comedy tells the story of part-time pickup artist Jake Newhouse (a.k.a Guy DeWitt). When his usual tactics don’t work the charm on sharp-tongued Danish librarian Ann, DeWitt seeks to employ Ishtar Madagan, a feminist sociologist writing a thesis on computer games, as his wing-woman.
The play opens on TJ Power as Jake, lounging in his boxers in front of a laptop, surrounded by empty pizza cartons and beer bottles, recording his podcast Santa is Cumming, which celebrates and praises the manipulative techniques of men scorned. Throughout the play, Power deftly shifts between arrogance and vulnerability. While initially deflecting Ishtar’s question “When was the last time you cried?,” he soon yields, recounting a poignant story of teenage heartbreak.
For me, Amber McMahon stole the show as the quick-witted, foul-mouthed academic Ishtar. Financially and emotionally bankrupt after a defamation case against DeWitt, she’s living in her office. She has a photocopying machine for a wardrobe and cardboard boxes for furniture, but not once does Ishtar let herself be patronised, talked over or humiliated by her well-off, more powerful adversary.
Supporting characters Denyse (Megan Wilding), Ishtar’s best friend and Computer Science PHD student, and Toby (Patrick Jhanur) Denyse’s colleague and not-so-secret admirer, provide short, sweet bursts of comedy to Power and McMahon’s repartee. Highlights include Denyse accosting Jake upon discovering him loitering outside Ishtar’s office door (“Have you ever heard of suffraju-jitsu?”), and Toby’s adorable, helpless venting to Ishtar about his unrequited love – he deals with numbers and figures every day, but there are some problems he just can’t crack. Lastly, Michelle Lim Davidson as Ann dishes out spectacular one-liners and dead-pan responses to Jake’s feckless flirtations.
These talented actors highlight Badham’s beautifully crafted script. Her characters are well-rounded and, more importantly, flawed. Her writing is delightfully clever: I loved Ann’s independence even as a figment of Jake and Ishtar’s imagination, scowling “Am I needed in this scene or not?” I was also pleasantly surprised (without giving too much away) that Ishtar’s sexuality was never labelled or disclosed.
Renée Mulder’s stage design is simple yet effective, a wooden wall containing myriad cubbies and hidey-holes that come into play during the show. Projecting the scene titles onto the set was a lovely touch (though you have to pay attention – I missed a few!). She has collaborated wonderfully with lighting designer Veronique Bennett, especially at the end of the play, where tiny lights and a hole carved into the wood illuminate to mimic the night sky as Ishtar stumbles down Jake’s street, carton of beer in hand. Though at times it was difficult to hear actors without the aid of microphones, Clemence Williams does an otherwise brilliant job with composition and sound, with the multitude of male voices chiming in to Jake’s podcast belying the play’s small cast of five.
This play will not end the war of the sexes. It gives no promise of resolution. No consolation that the violence, the pain, the injustice will eventually cede.
It just tells the story of two people, different in almost every way, who sit together under the light of the full moon and understand each other. Just a little bit.