I expected strong language and mature themes, the sexual affair that is “central to the plot” of playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s satirical Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes. I didn’t anticipate the leather messenger bag Jon carries onstage in the opening scene. Or his scuffed Blundstones. His blazer. The MacBook.
Each item, on its own, insignificant, even mundane. Taken together, I could only think of my abuser, his accessories I forgot I’d committed to memory. Perhaps this is the uniform of writers who prey on, demean, diminish. Perhaps they’re nondescript props, things any audience member might have brought into the theatre.
Their ubiquity is likely intentional. Jon, played by Kevin Aichele, appears as an everyman. Speaking to the audience in third-person narration, the 41-year-old author and university professor cracks relatable jokes as he reflects on his recent separation, professional struggles and disconcerting interest in Annie (Bailey Chin), one of his 19-year-old students.
I smiled and laughed along with the audience at some of Jon’s earliest jokes, perhaps out of genuine mirth, perhaps in some attempt to placate the melodramatic man standing a few feet away.
The story is told through a series of vignettes, all from Jon’s perspective, as the pair meet and begin a sexual relationship. He wrestles with their age difference, the nature of their affair, the notion of consent. He speaks about inappropriateness, faculty policy, alluding to but not explicitly mentioning power dynamics, coercion, rape.
As Kate Harding writes in the introduction to Asking For It, rape culture’s “most devilish trick is to make the average, noncriminal person identify with the person accused, instead of the person reporting a crime. Rape culture encourages us to scrutinize victims’ stories for any evidence that they brought violence upon themselves – and to always imagine ourselves in the terrifying role of Good Man, Falsely Accused, before we ‘rush to judgment.’”
In Jon’s telling, he’s not an advantageous perpetrator but a helpless man who succumbs to the charms of a younger, eager woman. He flirts, seemingly pinning responsibility for his own actions on Annie. Before kissing her, Jon asks, almost conspiratorially, “Do you know you’re coming on to me?”
Much like the set itself, his character, actions and word choices all exist in shades of grey. The labyrinthine stage design is simultaneously simple and complex. A maze-like, multipurpose structure dominates the space, but large windows and doorways allow audiences to catch glimpses of Annie as she strolls through Jon’s office, home and mind.
The solid-seeming, industrial, winding set acts as an allegory for memory itself. What seems fixed, indestructible and steady is actually moveable, malleable, temporary. Both can be reworked to suit different purposes, remade into something else altogether.
“Human memory and recall do not function like a tape recorder, faithfully recording events later to be recalled on command,” a Department of Justice Canada report reads. “Our memories are fallible and have gaps and inconsistencies. As a result, we recall and narrate traumatic events differently than routine events.”
Annie doesn’t label their relationship or her experiences as traumatic. She’s present throughout the play but often voiceless, a background presence, a prop in Jon’s storytelling. However, her silence speaks volumes.
As activist Miriam Zoila Pérez writes on sexual assault, “something doesn’t have to be loud to be deafening, to suck up all the oxygen in the room, to shroud the windows and dim the lights.” The most impactful, visceral parts of the play are unspoken and, for any other survivors in the audience, may be entirely unscripted.
Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes runs from March 1 to 18 at the Tom Hendry Warehouse. Tickets are for sale at royalmtc.ca, and assisted-hearing devices are available upon request.
Published in Volume 77, Number 21 of The Uniter (March 9, 2023)