Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
I think about Carol Zoccoli, and I feel an apology coming on.
Confession…I didn’t know a thing about her before a media release about her solo show How to Beat Up Any Man arrived in my Inbox with an innocuous ding. So I had no idea that Zoccoli is an award-winning stand-up comedian, writer and improviser, with credits that read like a Brazilian Tina Fey’s would, starting with Saturday Night Live Brazil as writer, ensemble and host of Weekend Update.
After immigrating to Canada six years ago, she graduated from the Second City’s Conservatory Program. A bilingual performer in English and Portuguese, she has been working continuously since. She has performed a show with The Second City and appeared on the NBC Breakout Festival’s roster in Chicago. She has taped TV sets for CBC at the Halifax and Winnipeg Comedy Festivals, as well as two debates on The Debaters. Oh, and she is a staple on the Toronto stand-up comedy circuit.
But my introduction to Zoccoli came just this week, in the form of How to Beat Up Any Man, which is now running at The Second City Toronto’s John Candy Box Theatre. The show packs a serious wallop. By this, I mean that it is strong from her opening comment right up to the finish. The impact to the gut lingers long after the lights come up. Directed by Clara McBride, the fast-paced, hour-long show is Zoccoli recounting her life story through the lens of the men who have insulted, challenged or mistreated her since childhood, and whom she has, well . . . walloped along the way. A handful of tactically-chosen photos conjure child Carol and teen Carol, punctuating the poignancy of an upbringing marked by neglect, violence, prejudice, and poverty. And this sparseness amplifies Zoccoli’s formidable comic timing and dramatic prowess. For this show is no downer. It is extraordinarily funny – in both its content and its delivery.
Zoccoli mines laughs and life lessons from her memories of the disparate people who tried to teach her what being a lady constitutes, and the collateral implications of having to abide by that code. The show opens with a memory that serves as a mental mile marker for Zoccoli: a phone call about her father’s death. Implausibly, some of the first and loudest laughs arise here. She closes the show by returning to this same memory, coming full circle to the defining moment delineating the person she was before the call from who she wanted to be after it. In between, she recounts her other pivotal moments and encounters, organized chronologically by the names of the boys and then men whom she beat up. In the intimacy of the John Candy Box Theatre, through the telescope of hindsight and experience, she takes us on a journey of self-awareness by recalling, reflecting on, and making sense of her memories. The first of these is her introduction to true violence in the unexpected form of a Kindergarten classmate. Many more such memories unfold, making the precocious young Zoccoli ever tougher . . . and the older Zoccoli ever more capable of finding the laughter inside the trauma.
The greatest strength of How to Beat Up Any Man is in Zoccoli’s telling. What could end up an alternately depressing and inspiring TED-Talk is instead an unforgettable hour of non-stop laughter. Zoccoli’s charisma keeps you in thrall, and her comic timing trips the switch from heartbreak to hilarity so quickly and unexpectedly that you find yourself doubled-over in laughter and bewildered at how she got you there. The show features truly raw moments that teeter right on the edge of teary pathos, but resolutely turn their back on sentimentality. Chameleon-like, she even becomes the characters she portrays: channeling brattish boys, street punks, petty criminals, her teachers or her relatives. And Zoccoli fashions just the right blend of solemnity and sarcasm, peppering her anecdotes with hilariously unexpected local and pop-culture references that make her Brazilian childhood relatable to Toronto audiences.
If beating up men were an artform, this show would be the Mona Lisa. How to Beat Up Any Man is a well-constructed and skilfully piloted engine of laughter, beneath which lurks a timely message about what being a woman really means in our society, when true equality still seems remote. Mothers with teenage girls – or boys – might find this show a fantastic way to bond through laughter . . . and find their way into some important conversations.
At a slight 4’11’, Zoccoli is a huge talent and no one’s fool. So instead of apologizing for my ignorance, I emailed Zoccoli my thanks for that unexpected email . . . and for the gift that is her show. Now I’m keeping a close eye on my Inbox and the broader entertainment listings. I can’t wait to see who or what she’s going to beat up next.
News You Can Use
What: How to Beat Up Any Man, written and performed by Carol Zoccoli; directed by Clara McBride
When: On stage April 27, 28, 29, May 3, 4 and 5, 2019
Where: John Candy Box Theatre, The Second City Training Centre, 99 Blue Jays Way, 3rd Floor, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: secondcity.com
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019