Phallacies rise to the occasion with discourse on masculinity

Students crowded into the Adams Memorial Theatre on Thursday to catch a Claiming Williams event, Phallacies, whose title alone guaranteed humor.

Phallacies: A Masculine Performance
Phallacies: A Masculine Performance. Photo by Roman Iwasiwka.
A dozen men from UMass-Amherst performed a series of sketches addressing issues pertaining to masculinity. Modeled after Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, Phallacies, organized by Taj Smith, assistant director of the Multicultural Center, and Tom Schiff, a men’s health educator at UMass, attempted to undermine the cultural association between masculinity and unhealthy, dangerous behavior. This theme was outlined in the very first scene, a Dr. Seuss-style conversation called “The Big Brag,” in which manliness is equated with being able to consume large quantities of alcohol and boast of many sexual partners.

Some of the more humorous scenarios occurred when male intimacy issues were brought to light. In ”Middle Stall” the audience voyeuristically observed a scene in a men’s bathroom, a “place of silent masculinity,” and witnessed the phenomenon of middle-stall avoidance. Schiff speculated on why men were uncomfortable using the urinal between two other men, attributing the discomfort to homophobia or a fear of intimacy. Men’s physical discomfort with one another was also highlighted in the final scene, “Hugging 101,” in which “certified hugologists” demonstrated a variety of hugs, all designed to maintain a “critical distance between pelvic regions.” While the audience roared over the absurdity of the “A-Frame Hug,” the “Backslap Hug,” the ‘”Side-to-Side Hug,” and the “Confused Handshake Hug,” they were also touched by the sincerity of the actors’ final, heart-warming demonstration of the “Embrace.”

“Make You Feel Beautiful,” performed by Duoc Nguyen, emphasized the importance of consent. Requesting in spoken-word poetry, “with your consent, I want to make you feel beautiful,” Nguyen won the hearts of many women in the audience and also garnered big cheers after cheekily promising, “I’ll be your equal when I eat you, I don’t want to get ahead.”

One of the most effective and direct sketches was “Masculinguistics,” in which the cast addressed certain problematic phrases that recur in the male vocabulary, from “man up,” which implies that to be manly one must “ignore all logic and emotion,” to “I’d hit that,” a phrase which conjures “violent, mechanical imagery” and implies that sex is something you do to someone, not with them.

Other well-executed scenes included “This is Not a Bromance,” in which the male intimacy issue bubbled up once again. With impeccable timing, two best friends performed another spoken-word piece expressing frustration with a term that makes light of their friendship and mocks the love they have for one another as friends. Schiff’s role as a health educator featured prominently in “Testicle Talk,” a humorous public service announcement about the importance of monthly testicular self-examinations, in which Schiff and actor Roy Ribitzky portrayed a pair of testicles. The relative lack of publicity that testicular cancer gets in comparison to breast cancer made the informative piece all the more engaging.

Some of the scenes, however, were less effective, and came off as more didactic than relatable. For example, two scenes with repeating characters, “Confrontation 1” and “Confrontation 2,” dealt with the issue of how to approach a friend who may be abusive to his partner. While Ribitzky, accompanied by actors Coley Michalik and Kenny Francis, certainly got the point across that direct confrontation is the best way to handle such a situation, his references to lessons learned in psychology class came off as rather preachy and unrealistic. Likewise, Francis’ ultimately positive reaction to Ribitzky’s intervention was probably over-idealized. The language used in these skits was incongruous with most of the tones of the other sketches, which were painted with realism or humor.

When scenarios were addressed with honesty, they were highly successful. One of the best performances was that of Tim Katz in “Crossing the Line” in which he portrayed a college student who had non-consensual sex with a girl and couldn’t understand where he was in the wrong. This rationalization of entirely inappropriate behavior is an issue that has been brought up repeatedly on this campus as well as others, and made the scene extremely relevant to Claiming Williams Day.

The audience’s reaction to the performance was mostly positive. Certain gaps in subject matter were noticeable, such as the issue of transgender males or abstinent men; however, the group explicitly stated that they choose to write from personal experience only, which made these holes more understandable. Most audience members seemed satisfied with the material addressed, which, like many Claiming Williams events, directed questions at the College community that may be well worth discussing.