She Deserves to Be Happy: The Illusion of Choice in Michaela Di Cesare’s Extra/Beautiful/U

Photo: Maxime Coté / Centaur Theatre. Left to right: Cara Rebecca, Stephanie Torriani, Sean Ryan, Medeleine Scovil.

Michaela Di Cesare’s new play, Extra/Beautiful/U, premiered at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre last November as part of Centaur’s Brave New Looks Selection for the 2023-2024 season. Included in Infinithéâtre’s Pipeline Reading Series in 2017, the play won the company’s Write-on-Q playwriting competition, before making its way to the stage. Extra/Beautiful/U follows Lara (Madeleine Scovil), a native of the Montreal borough of Saint-Leonard, who is catapulted into Internet fame after appearing on a reality dating show. When a car crash leaves Lara disfigured, the young Internet celebrity is obliged to return home. Back in Montreal with her family, she prepares for an experimental facial reconstruction treatment that promises to restore Lara’s facial features to their original state – and social media profitability. An encounter with an elementary school acquaintance and former friend, the ambitious Dr Sam Gagliardi (Cara Rebecca), forces Lara to confront the truth about her relationships – past and present – and take a closer look at herself.

The play opens with Lara’s first appointment, where she and her mother Angie (Toni Ellwand) consult Dr Gagliardi to ensure that the operations will restore Lara’s beauty. Dr Gagliardi is honest about the extent to which her research remains experimental, and stresses that the choice to see it through is ultimately Lara’s own. The audience is made to commiserate with Lara’s grueling convalescence after facial reconstruction surgery, and her growing frustration with Dr Gagliardi. As Lara recovers, her mother divides her time between the hospital and her Saint-Leonard home, where she looks after Lara’s younger sister Louise (Stephanie Torriani), a thirty-year-old woman with Down Syndrome. Louise aspires to move out of her mother’s house and into a group home with her boyfriend, but Angie fears that Louise will be unable to care for herself.

Photo courtesy of Centaur Theatre

Louise takes it upon herself to prove she is responsible, despite her mother’s resistance and unwillingness to adapt to her daughter’s growing desire for independence. In her mother’s absence, Louise not only looks after herself, but after the house as well. When we first meet Louise, she is folding laundry and greets her mother, who has just returned from visiting Lara in the hospital, with a glass of wine. When Lara is in need of a blood transfusion and Louise jumps at the opportunity to help her sister, Angie reminds both her daughter and the medical staff that Louise cannot legally make her own decisions. Angie must consent on Louise’s behalf. Angie’s life revolves around motherhood: her purpose is centered on responsibility for her daughters. She is exhausted having to split her time between her two daughters.

As a social media micro-celebrity, Lara is very apprehensive about how others view her, but in fact has little control over viewers’ perception of her. Dr Gagliardi’s friend and colleague, the nurse Beauté (Sean Ryan), is a fangirl of Lara’s, and begs her superior to be allowed to assist with the surgery. She enters what is supposed to be a professional setting with preconceived notions and biases based on the persona Lara presents online; and though they are positive, they nevertheless have the potential to be harmful. When a disagreement between Beauté and Lara escalates, the dynamic between fan and celebrity crumbles, as Lara asserts her rights as a patient. Beauté’s belief that she knows Lara on a personal level because of her social media presence, a phenomenon often called a parasocial relationship, causes her to treat her differently. Whether this will result in harm to Lara during the surgery creates tension.

Photo courtesy of Centaur Theatre

Post-surgery, once Lara regains her ability to speak, Angie confronts her about the negative, albeit truthful, way she described her family life on television. She abhors that strangers learned intimate truths about her family. From financial struggles to helping raise a disabled sister, Lara’s retelling of her childhood encourages her audience to pity her and her family, which Angie resents.

Angie is adamant about neither wanting nor needing pity from strangers, yet her daughters continue to shine a spotlight on her. Louise takes a page out of her sister’s book and turns to social media to campaign for her independence. In a series of Instagram livestreams, Louise documents Lara’s medical progress, tells her own story, and advocates for accessibility for people with Down Syndrome. Angie scolds Louise when she learns about her newfound Internet popularity for, as she puts it, airing the family’s dirty laundry online, and repeating Lara’s offense. Louise also angers Lara, who feels as though her sister has taken advantage of her social media fame for her own personal gain. The two women can only understand the impacts of Louise’s social media fame in how it affects their own reputation. But Louise gains a sense of independence from the social media presence she cultivates, as she is lauded as an activist and is taken seriously for what seems to be the first time in her life.

In the play, Di Cesare is calling attention to the dangers of social media and the illusion of choice one has when promoting oneself on the Internet. While Lara chooses which parts of her life to share with the world, she cannot choose how her audience reacts to her. Lara’s lack of control over her social media presence reflects her lack of control over her surgery. During her recovery, Lara discovers that Dr Gagliardi had planned on contacting Lara much earlier than she previously allowed Lara to believe. Although Dr Gagliardi insists that all choices lie with Lara, she has clearly created a situation that would allow Lara to believe that she was in control, when in fact the opposite was true. She planned to use Lara as the poster child for the facial reconstruction procedure she is championing, hoping to legitimize her research and ultimately gain further funding. Thus, as a result of her Internet fame, Lara is both an experiment and an advertisement.

The play employs multiple screens, which allow the audience to view what the characters are viewing on social media. When Dr Gagliardi scrolls through Lara’s Instagram, for example, the screens display every post, comment, and like count. Louise’s live streams are also magnified on a screen. As the actress playing Louise is seen and heard on stage, the audience can choose to look at her in person or on a screen. Louise’s images and words are broadcast to people worldwide, and she may not realize just how many people are listening to her. While some people join the live stream, asking questions and making comments, they are but a fraction of the number of people who can find Louise’s profile and watch the videos as often as they choose. This staging choice brings to light not only the magnitude of social media outreach, but the degree to which influencers are oblivious to this outreach. Neither Lara nor Louise truly understand how large an audience they have, and how quickly their fortunes can turn. This leads both women into having a false sense of control over their social media presence.

The play ends with a discussion between Lara and her mother; the pair have discovered just how large Louise’s social media influence has grown. Thanks to the business savvy that comes with being an Internet influencer, Lara immediately locates sponsorship offers in Louise’s private messages. Despite wrestling with the consequences of putting one’s life and family on a public forum, Lara and Angie briefly weigh the financial benefits of allowing Louise to continue posting. Lara concludes that Louise deserves to be happy, and should therefore do as she pleases, thereby falling right back into the alluring trap of social media. Under the guise of wanting Louise’s happiness, Lara and Angie seemingly turn a blind eye to the dangers of social media in exchange for the promise of financial gain. As the curtains close, the audience is once again left with the notion that although the characters believe they have agency over their social media presences, they are unable to truly choose how they are perceived.

Julia Bifulco is completing a Master’s degree in English Literature at McGill, where she is researching Ovidian reception in the poetry of Christina Rossetti. She is the founder of pixie literary magazine at Concordia University, and has served as editor-in-chief of multiple independent publications. She is passionate about feminist literary theory and is determined to find the best arancini in Montreal.

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