Reasons to Be Pretty: A black comedy for Valentine’s Day

ON STAGE

Reasons to Be Pretty

Where: Phoenix Theatre, University of Victoria

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When: Opens tonight, continues through Feb. 23

Tickets: $13 to $24 250-721-8000

Just in time for Valentine’s Day — a play in which a girl savagely rips into her boyfriend with an expletive-laden tirade.

His crime: describing her looks as being just ordinary.

The play is Reasons to Be Pretty, opening tonight at UVic’s Phoenix Theatre. The 2008 black comedy is by Neil LaBute, the controversial (and popular) American playwright notorious for his misogynistic, rage-filled characters. He’s a provocateur par excellence; it’s not uncommon for audience members to walk out of his hard-bitten plays.

Movie-goers may recall the film adaptation of LaBute’s In the Company of Men, in which two executives play a horrible prank on a deaf woman by tricking her into falling in love with them. Reasons to Be Pretty (LaBute’s first work to be staged on Broadway) examines society’s obsession with physical appearance. In this play about four working-class young people, Greg has been overheard describing the looks of his girlfriend, Stephanie, as “just regular.”

But, he adds, “I wouldn’t trade her for a million bucks.”

He may mean well, but hell hath no fury like a woman described in less than glowing terms. Stephanie verbally attacks Greg with the ferocity of a Tasmanian devil. “You better stay around and argue this s--t out,” she screams, “or I’m gonna … wreck your life a little bit.”

Reasons to Be Pretty is part of a LaBute trilogy exploring the hot-button topic of how people’s physical appearance affects their lives and those around them. The Shape of Things (2001) is about an art student whose feigned romantic interest in a man turns out to be her graduate degree art project (she persuades him to physically transform himself, even to the point of undergoing plastic surgery). The other installment in the trilogy, Fat Pig (2004), is about a man who falls for a corpulent woman. Ultimately, pressured by his image-conscious friends, he cannot fully accept her size.

Less fettered by the crowd-pleasing constraints of commercial theatre companies, UVic’s theatre department is no stranger to edgy material. Nonetheless, the no-holds-barred dialogue and savage zeal with which LaBute investigates uncomfortable topics makes Reasons to Be Pretty an unusual offering (the production comes with a language warning).

Christine Willes selected the play. The veteran film, TV and stage actress is directing Reasons to Be Pretty as her thesis project at UVic, where she’s completing a master of fine arts degree with a directing specialization.

“I’m a huge fan of Neil LaBute,” she said between rehearsals at the Phoenix Theatre. “He shines a light into our contemporary North American behaviour in a way that no other playwright does. I think he’s quite fearless.”

She met LaBute on the set of The Wicker Man, a 2006 horror film that he wrote and directed. Willes played a fisherwoman in the movie. “He’s lovely. He’s a really lovely, nice man,” she said.

Willes also had an email correspondence with LaBute while directing Reasons to Be Pretty. She sought advice about an ambiguous element in one character’s monologue. To her surprise, the famous playwright responded promptly.

Formerly based in Vancouver, Willes moved to Victoria not long ago to care for her elderly father. UVic acting students have benefited from Willes’s 30-plus years as an actor, acting coach and director. She played Delores Herbig in the Emmy-nominated television series Dead Like Me. A stage veteran who has won three Jessie Richardson theatre awards, she has coached high-profile actors such as Michelle Ryan and Zac Efron. While working on her MFA (which Willes is slated to receive in June), she gave acting advice to the cast of The Secret Circle TV series via telephone and Skype.

Willes’s approach to directing Reasons to be Pretty reflects her ongoing interest in naturalistic acting (she’s studied with such notables as Carol Rosenfeld of New York’s famed HB Studio, and Larry Moss). In preparing students for the play, Willes emphasized improvisational exercises — at one point, for instance, having them ad lib new scenes inspired by LaBute’s script.

Such a rehearsal style harkens to her own early days working in theatre collectives. Returning to working this way with UVic students will influence her future theatre projects, she said.

“The improvisation and collaborative nature of the experience, that has been so liberating — I will never go back to any other form of directing,” Willes said.

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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