It’s hard to imagine you could feel so seen when sitting in the audience of a theatre.
But within moments of the beginning of Haley McGee’s The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale, I was certain. This show was written specifically for me.
Really, it’s a show for anyone who has ever been in love. Or thought they were in love. Or who has been the subject of unrequited love. Or who has convinced themselves that, sure, they’re still in love, despite never really loving their partner in the first place but feeling unable to leave because of that pesky little burden known as guilt.
Really, it’s a show for everyone.
Ignoring the fact that it’s a deeply personal piece that explores the intimacies and intricacies of McGee’s own past relationships, the easiest way to describe this show is Relatable, with a capital “R.”
It’s also hilarious, touching, and an incredibly tight production. McGee has effortlessly taken heartbreak, heartache, and a hearty dose of ennui and re-packaged it into a bubble-wrapped, orange-sticky-note-coated hour and forty minutes of pure theatrical magic.
I say “seemingly effortlessly” for a reason. It’s clear that plenty of effort went into this production from Outside the March and Soulpepper. Director Mitchell Cushman’s flawless and energetic staging, combined with McGee’s masterful storytelling and unrelenting charm, have woven together to create an interactive solo performance that is as visually stimulating as it is brilliantly written.
From the second audiences enter the theatre, they are invited onto the stage to appraise several items of unspecified value: a CD; a ukulele; a typewriter; a bicycle; a jewelry box; a necklace; a backpack; and a t-shirt. Each item stands on a gleaming white pedestal, laid out in a meticulous maze on a stage of astroturf.
The show may not have started, but The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale is well underway.
It’s actually been underway since 2019, when McGee first performed the show as part of Toronto’s SummerWorks Festival. Now, more than three years after the show was originally planned to run at Soulpepper, The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale has finally made it back to Toronto stages. While the show itself doesn’t seem to have changed massively, those two years have brought about quite a bit of change for McGee. She adapted the show into her massively successful memoir of the same name (which my theatre buddy gleefully purchased in the lobby after the opening night performance). And her latest show, Age is a Feeling, premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in August before transferring to London’s Soho theatre in September, a prime venue for solo and independent productions. The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale is now only one of McGee’s many incredible exploits, and it’s only on Toronto stages for a limited time.
The concept for the show is deceptively simple: while living in the UK, McGee found herself broke, with little more than the physical remnants of past relationships to her name. Realizing that perhaps her heartbreak (or the items left over from those heartbreaks) might carry some monetary value, she set out to discover exactly what the value of those experiences was.
Rather than doing what any rational, non-theatre person might do by simply selling the aforementioned items, McGee took the more artistic route. She contacted her exes, interviewed them, intertwined their perspectives with her experience, and turned it into a show.
And what a show it is. It’s not simply a “show and tell” experience, with McGee describing her exes and the significance of the items before her. Instead, McGee collaborated with mathematician Melanie Phillips to create a formula to calculate the worth of each item. Some of the considerations include the length of the relationship and who was the dumper versus dumpee, as well as the quality (and quantity) of the sex among a myriad of other calculations. It’s an intricate and impressive formula for love, recited at a breakneck pace by McGee in the last moments of the show much to the delight of the opening night audience.
It’s the perfect representation of the show as a whole: McGee makes use of the entire space with an unabating energy. She pulls notebooks from the walls on retractable dog-leashes, a recurring moment of physical comedy that is as satisfying as the accompanying “snap” as the leashes’ whirl back into place. Unnoticed doors reveal exhaustive and exhilarating lists of facts and figures, scrolls unfurl from the ceiling, and a string map representing the sexual patterns of a long distance relationship (or LDR as McGee calls it) spread across half the entire stage.
This may sound overwhelming, but “chaos” is the perfect shorthand for both McGee and Cushman’s mastery of their respective crafts. The show is meticulously choreographed while allowing McGee to breathe and improvise; she’s not just spewing a story at the audience, but telling a story alongside them, and bringing them along on her journey. The only breaks in the action come when McGee pauses briefly to allow her stories to sink in and for the audience to catch up. And the design team has done wonders to elevate the action: Kieran Lucas’ pitch-perfect sound design is exemplary, and Lucy Adams’ complex lighting design highlights specifically timed moments faultlessly. All in all, it’s a theatrical marvel that unfolds without a hitch.
Unlike Cushman’s recent work, which includes Talk is Free Theatre’s three-hour roving production of Sweeney Todd and Factory Theatre’s Trojan Girls and the Outhouse of Atreus, The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale isn’t a completely immersive experience. But that doesn’t mean audience members are mere spectators. Amateur appraisals on ex-boyfriends’ gifts aside, McGee consults with the audience multiple times throughout the production, conducting audience polls and earnestly interacting with the responses. With each question, audience members’ hands shoot enthusiastically into the air, mine among them: it’s the rare time in the theatre where it seems as though everyone can relate to the story in one way or another.
Despite the content of the show seeming like it might be a bit of a downer (breakups are rarely ha-ha moments), McGee fills the space with an atmosphere of joy. Exiting the theatre, there was the overwhelming sense that something in each of us had changed: for the first time in perhaps a very long time, we felt connected through this personal yet universally relatable experience.
We were seen.
The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale plays at Soulpepper October 18 through November 6, 2022.