FRINGE 2019: Why you need to see… Jessica Fostekew
Who: Jessica Fostekew
“THANK YOU FOR YOUR COMPLIMENT. WHY AM I TRYING NOT TO CRY?!”
A sportswear-clad Jessica Fostekew runs onto stage from the back of the room and immediately launches straight into some ill-advised feminist flirting. "I'm just getting this vibe off you that you're strident as fuck..." She goes on to explain that she herself was subject to some right-on advances when a man approached her at the gym offered her the somewhat dubious compliment, "You look really *hench*..." He then doubles down and calls her "heavy".
So begins an exploration into the meaning of the term hench, and more generally how society defines the idea of female strength. We learn that 'sturdiness of leg' is seen as an attractive physical trait in prospective brides...in Mongolia; that Fostekew has always been subject to variations on the hench theme throughout her life; and how society, her mother, and even her personal trainer balk at any perceptible bulk on women's bodies as 'unfeminine'.
It is important to stress at this juncture that Fostekew is outrageously funny throughout. As in the audience must have left with aching abs judging from the sheer number of belly-laughs. Of course there are fascinating insights and thoughtful points made throughout, but this is just outrageously good stand-up. Aside from anything else, Fostekew's kinetic stage energy and transformations into either her boisterous three-year-old or rasping internal monologue are a joy to behold.
Indeed there's an array of characters that Fostekew summons at will. Her spirited young lad, who is neither the 'strong daughter' nor 'gentle son' that she had hoped for; her father who's so desperate for his grandson to be a boy's boy that he buys him an extremely camp t-shirt adorned with the slogan 'BOYS BOYS BOYS'; and a mum who believes feminine strength is defined by 'grace and decorum'. This motherly advice is evoked again and again by a flustered Fostekew as she struggles to show either in various stressful scenarios.
What Fostekew does especially well is expand on conventional (see patriarchal) wisdom and unravel all the threads of bullshit therein. Her bit about why the phrase 'grow a pair' - and the suggestion testicles somehow signify strength - makes little sense ("How has that happened? When they have the potential to be licked too hard?”) is immense, whilst her recollection of childbirth is both very funny and an emotional rollercoaster at the same time. Such anecdotes and theories are expertly told and build into rousing crescendos.
Ultimately, Fostekew yearns for a time when women are free of society's unfair and unequal expectations, and can just be happy, healthy and strong in a way that suits them, rather than some warped ideal. Although her closing soliloquy on the untold 'grace and decorum' shown by Caster Semenya in incredibly trying circumstances suggests there is still a way to go. By way of a triumphant finish, the audience are subject to breathtaking feat of athletic prowess by Fostekew that is both perfectly fitting and emphatically hench.
You can buy tickets for Hench here.