Tale of 19th-century woman cyclist takes satisfying spin through history

REVIEW

What: SPIN
Where: Belfry Theatre’s Spark Festival, 1291 Gladstone Ave.
When: Through Saturday
Rating: Four stars (out of five)

 

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Before seeing SPIN, I’d never heard of Annie Londonderry. In 1894 and 1895, she became the first woman to cycle around the world.

It was an astonishing achievement, especially in a bustle-and-petticoats age when it was widely believed (at least by men) that women’s place was in the home.

In her show SPIN, Toronto’s Evalyn Parry uses the story of Londonderry and others to illustrate the bicycle’s key role in the emancipation of women more than a century ago. It’s an interesting notion. Parry — the artistic director of Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times theatre — has hatched an original and entertaining 75 minutes of storytelling, high-tech cabaret and folk-indie music-making.

Her examination might have gone deeper, especially in the case of Londonderry, a fascinating woman. Sometimes SPIN’s most compelling ideas are merely hinted at with a smile or a fleeting reference.

Still, this is fine, theatrical yarn-spinning. There’s something pure and true about Parry’s off-beat, slightly arty vision. And the wonderful addition of Brad Hart, who on Tuesday night proved himself the John Bonham of bicycle percussionists, also makes SPIN worth a visit.

Londonderry (her real name was Annie Kopchosky) was a Latvian Jew married to a peddler in Boston. Leaving her husband to care for their three children, she set off to circumnavigate the globe on a bicycle within 12 months. Bikes were all the rage in the 1890s. As well, Londonderry’s mission was partly a response to a man who cycled the world in 1887, the first person to do so.

The 23-year-old woman — just five-foot-three and 100 pounds — set off from Boston in long skirts and a corset, carrying a pearl-handled revolver. Londonderry’s intention, says Parry, was to “stick it to the man.” She soon abandoned traditional dress in favour of men’s riding breeches.

At stake was a $10,000 wager that no woman was capable of such a feat. Parry wonders whether such a bet truly existed — perhaps Londonderry just wanted to go on an adventure. And she points out there was also considerable “spin” in the lectures the globe-trotting bicyclist gave on her exploits. This spin extended to Londonderry’s canny ability to score sponsorships to pay her way (she took her pseudonym from the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company).

Spin is SPIN’s prevailing metaphor — a thread binding the show together. Parry suggests in a world dominated by men, women needed to employ a wily ingenuity to live a truly full life. And this is something to be admired.

Parry weaves in other material: quaint bike-riding advice from suffragette Frances Willard, Amelia Bloomer’s advocacy of bloomers and Parry’s own recollections of the unique sense of liberation afforded by bicycle-riding.

Her tales are illustrated by Beth Kates’ clever use of video and projected images. some of them animated. What elevates SPIN from very good to remarkable is the mustachioed, bowler-hatted Hart. He uses a vintage bicycle mounted on a stand as a musical instrument. Hart plucks and bows the spokes, makes a whirring sound with the pedals and taps drum-triggers strategically placed on the two-wheeler. At one point, he played an echoing percussion solo that was truly extraordinary.

Parry’s songs, which she accompanies on electric guitar, straddle folk and cabaret. Sometimes she recites in a rhythmic manner suggestive of low-key hip-hop.

She’s a genial, deft storyteller. Transcending feminist politics, SPIN’s message is delivered with big-hearted humanity, sophistication and grace.

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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