Jhere’s a visual gag in Top Coat, Michelle Law’s new play, where a character ostensibly raises a large format towards us. “FREAKY FRIDAY 3 FLOPS,” the title reads, above an image from the beloved Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis film that has become synonymous with body swapping.
Since its release in 2003, Freaky Friday – itself based on an earlier film, and before that, a children’s novel – has spawned countless spin-offs and imitators. Amidst the rabble are those who miraculously find new ways in the tried-and-true format: the recent horror-comedy Freaky, for example, where a teenage girl swaps places with a serial killer; or the acclaimed anime Your Name, which transfigures its narrative gimmick into a stunning tale of lost love. Top Coat doesn’t quite reach those heights, but it still proves a worthy addition to the canon.
Farcical and frantic, Law’s take on the body-swap is drawn on racial lines. Winnie (Kimie Tsukakoshi) is a brash nail technician prone to outbursts in the face of an endless deluge of demeaning, disrespectful, white clientele. Kate (Amber McMahon) is one of them: a high-flying television executive at the Multicultural Broadcasting Corporation, with an absurd name, and one of the last people for whom the term “girlboss” is a badge of honor. honor rather than a pejorative.
Their fate is sealed as soon as Kate bursts into the living room, almost demanding that Winnie fix her broken fingernail. Before long, they start training. “I want people to respect my authority,” Kate laments. “I hope I had authority,” Winnie retorts.
Of course, their dreams come true in a fantastic way – both an homage and a parody of the switcheroo scene from 2003’s Freaky Friday, which takes place in a Chinese restaurant, complete with an evil-smiling butler. Top Coat satirizes the orientalism of this scene: a mystical fan is waved, smoke billows from a funnel, and a lucky cat’s eyes glow laser red. Kate and Winnie swap bodies and now, as you would expect in this genre, each has to learn each other’s ways – how hard it must be in their place, how much they come to appreciate their selves of origin.
Except, wait: it’s only really difficult for one part here.
While Kate struggles to buff her fingernails and wash her feet — much to the confusion of Winnie’s boss, Asami (Arisa Yura) — her counterpart flies through business meetings and TV sets , accidentally righting his predecessor’s wrongs with little more than common sense. (Read: a brain not yet wormed by the specific quirks of a media career.)
Where Kate has trampled on her colleagues in her blind attempt to run a network that values diversity solely in terms of dollar signs – an attitude all too familiar to anyone with even a superficial relationship with the Australian media – Winnie rushes like an industrial relations Mary Poppins to grant long-deserved opportunities to junior employees Yuko (also Yura) and native business executive Marcus (Matty Mills).
Top Coat excels when it lets Law’s broader comedic features take center stage. A standout scene plays like a rom-com montage, with Winnie-as-Kate and Marcus’ newfound friendship blossoming across a slew of moving backdrops, set to a Lizzo needle drop that – while incredibly cheesy – has drew huge cheers from the crowd on opening night.
But there are times when the artwork struggles to reconcile its more kitschy elements – James Lew’s Pinterest-board sets, each drenched in a single color ranging from canary yellow to Barbie pink, or the sound design of Michael Toisita, who often looks like the anonymous electro beats from a cut scene from Selling Sunset – with its serious dissection of racial politics.
Maybe it’s because Top Coat caters to two very distinct audiences: the Winnies and the Kates. For the former, it offers – much like Law Single Asian Female’s debut show – the joys of being seen so specifically. It’s full of references to East Asian experiences: jokes about double eyelids and lactose intolerance, as well as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment where McMahon somehow masters another is the flat-heeled Asian squat.
For the latter, Top Coat offers a crash course in film and television representation, which he says wields power beyond the screen to affect the material existence of people of color.
The problem is that to non-white viewers (or at least this one), its lessons are so obvious they border on the mundane. A soliloquy Marcus delivers on symbolic annihilation – the process by which minority groups are systematically excluded or stereotyped in the media – comes across as didactic rather than thought-provoking. When Yuko utters lines like “stories are balm”, it sounds like she’s leading a cultural competency seminar instead of playing a character.
To be fair, it’s a seminar the Kates in the audience could probably use. If only they could give up their power as easily as Top Coat’s finale suggests: with a slapstick brawl and a tearful confession.