Originally published by HowlRound

Theatre_Movement_Bazaar_01_0 (1)The 2013 Radar L.A. interdisciplinary theater festival brought artists from around the world to perform alongside and in collaboration with Los Angeles theater artists. Presented by REDCAT and CalArts in association with Center Theatre Group, and curated by Mark Murphy of REDCAT, Diane Rodriguez of Center Theatre Group, and Mark Russell of The Public Theater in New York (yeah, it was that collaborative), this year’s festival featured 18 productions from the United States, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, New Zealand, Japan, and the Netherlands.

The first Radar L.A. was held two years ago when TCG held their annual conference here. Co-curator Diane Rodriguez told me that she and her collaborators had already begun discussing creating a festival with national range, and the conference provided a perfect opportunity to launch it. This year, she says, though some professional theater makers came from elsewhere for a symposium that was part of the festival, the local audience also turned out in droves.

The festival expanded its geographical reach to include The Getty Villa in Malibu, the Grand Central Market, and theaters downtown as well as the Kirk Douglas Theatre and REDCAT. And this time around, the festival not only presented existing interdisciplinary theater pieces, it also commissioned and co-produced new work from both local and international artists.

I managed to take in five shows, including two solo performances, a collaboration between a Los Angeles theater company and one from the Netherlands, a deconstructed version of Anton Chekov’s Three Sisters created by a local group, and Prometheus Bound.

Roger Guenveur Smith in Rodney King and Trieu Tran in Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam used the instability of identity inherent in solo shows to tell stories about that most volatile of subjects: race in America. Theatre Movement Bazaar‘s Track 3 used a combination of spoken text, song, and dance to tell the whole story of Three Sisters in seventy five minutes using nothing more than a table, chairs, a few books, and some teacups.

One of my favorite shows, Hospital, resulted from a collaboration between a local performance group called The Los Angeles Poverty Department and the Netherlands-based collective Wunderbaum. Reminiscent of the WPA’s Living Newspapers—a Depression-era theatrical tradition that showcased current political events, Hospital uses the story of one real-life participant in the health care systems of both the United States and the Netherlands to address the larger health care issues facing both countries.

This combination of music, dance, video, and personal narrative, delivered both through reenactments and direct address, was at once both a defense and a criticism of Obamacare as well as of the Netherlands’ entirely nationalized health care system. Much like Living Newspapers existed to address national problems with concrete proposals, Hospital even goes so far as to pose a possible long-term solution to our collective health-care woes.

The largest-scale production I saw was Travis Preston‘s Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. Preston, who commissioned this new version of Aeschylus’s metaphysical tragedy, said he was looking for a translation that uses language to clarify the internal action that moves the play—after all, the only physical action dictated by the text is Prometheus getting nailed to a rock.

What movement existed in performance derived from Preston’s use of the amphitheater, such as the aisles between sections of the audience and the acoustic effects of such open-air stone theaters; a chorus of twelve women that moved and spoke as one; and the turning of a massive metal wheel that represented the rock to which Prometheus was tethered.

Preston added that through extended workshops and rehearsals, he found that “the piece resisted any decorative impulses.” He aimed rather to invoke the kind of iconography that would allow the audience to infer and project their own meanings onto the performance. The wheel spoke simultaneously of industrialization and of the medieval wheel of fortune, while the Chorus seemed to embody both water and birds. Live musicians gave even the most philosophical portions of the text forward motion, while also creating a meditative rhythm that harkened back to the communal nature of Attic tragedy as originally performed.

Based on audience feedback, Preston found that audiences brought their own interpretations to the images on stage, including that of a black man in bondage (Prometheus was played by Ron Cephas Jones). Preston shared, “I didn’t cast Ron because he was black, but he was black. It’s undeniable that people saw it through the prism of slavery and the condition of people of color throughout the world.”

By not making the production an explicit commentary on slavery or race relations, Preston enabled the audience to make that connection themselves, providing for a far more imaginative and less didactic experience than simply setting the play in antiquity would have.

Similarly, though Preston believes the play to be proto-Christian in its emphasis on sacrifice, the lack of overt Christian symbols allowed the audience to read the performance both from a religious perspective, in which the essential questions it asks are about obedience and sacrifice, and from an existential one, in which the question is whether life really consists of anything more than suffering.

The combination of dance, music, and spoken text used in Prometheus Bound perfectly encapsulated Radar L.A.’s interdisciplinary focus. As to the future of the festival, Murphy shared the specific role he wants Radar L.A. to play in creating new work in Los Angeles.

“It’s important that the local work and local artists have a larger context in which the field is evolving and what important developments there are elsewhere that might influence the way we work. In particular because of the unique geographical location of LA and its demographics, some of the cultural influences that are most relevant are from Latin America and the Pacific Rim,” he continued. “Aesthetically, which is where we can blur the boundaries of states and governments, we’re interested in finding new ways to tell story, a narrative that is expressed or constructed through imagery, choreography, and other forms in addition to spoken word.”

The feminist in me cannot help but point out that ticket prices for Radar L.A. and the connected symposium are high enough that audience members and participants are, as one symposium attendee pointed out, “sitting in seats of privilege.” Nonetheless, Radar L.A. confirmed a suspicion I’ve had for some time now: That Los Angeles is currently one of the most interesting places to make and see theater in America.

[Mic drop. She exits.]


Track 3 by Theatre Movement Bazaar. Photo credit: Joey Bernheimer.
Marleen Scholten, Maartje Remmers, John Malpede, Linda Harris, Walter Fears, and other cast members in Wunderbaum/LAPD’s Hospital at Radar L.A. festival. Photo credit: Steven Gunther.
Ron Cephas Jones as Prometheus; Mirjana Jokovic as Io carried by the Chorus. Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz.

Originally published by Ms., Sociological Images, and The Huffington Post

Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, but also what men fear about women and women’s sexuality. Writing the book in 1973 and only three years out of college, I was fully aware of what Women’s Liberation implied for me and others of my sex. Carrie is woman feeling her powers for the first time and, like Samson, pulling down the temple on everyone in sight at the end of the book.

– Stephen King, Danse Macabre

Most feminist criticism of Stephen King’s Carrie has focused on the male fear of powerful women that the author said inspired the film, with the anti-Carrie camp finding her death at the end to 7167066734_95a0688a25signify the defeat of the “monstrous feminine” and therefore a triumph of sexism. But Stephen King’s honesty about what inspired his 1973 book notwithstanding, Carrie is as much an articulation of a feminist nightmare as it is of a patriarchal one, with neither party coming out on top.

The rise of Second Wave feminism in the ’70s posed serious threats to the patriarchal order–as well it should have. But even for those who think change is not only necessary but good, change can be pretty scary. This, with a hat tip to the universality of being bullied, is one of the reasons Carrie scares everyone.

While men in the ’70s felt threatened by the unprecedented numbers of women standing up for themselves and attempting such radical social changes as being recognized as equal under the law, women themselves must have felt some anxiety that the obstacles to fully realizing themselves might be too big to conquer. The story therefore resonates with men in terms of the fear of (metaphorical) castration prompted by changing gender roles, and with women in terms of the fear that no matter how powerful we become, social forces are still so aligned against us that fighting back might destroy not just the patriarchy but ourselves.

Feminism was not the only thing on the rise in the ’70s: so was Christian fundamentalism. In 1976, the year that the original movie debuted, 34 percent of Protestant Americans told the Gallup Poll that they had had born-again experiences, leading George Gallup himself to declare 1976 the Year of the Evangelical. In fact evangelism, then as now–when 41 percent of Americans report being born again–was one of feminism’s more formidable foes, one of those very social forces that would rather destroy women than see them powerful.

The triggering event of Carrie–the infamous shower scene–is a product of the meeting of these two forces. Because of a fundamentalist Christian worldview in which menstruation is not simply a biological process but rather evidence of Eve’s original sin being visited upon her daughters, Carrie‘s mother does nothing to prepare her for getting her period. When she starts bleeding at school, Carrie naturally panics, and as a result faces the scorn of her peers–who laugh at her for not knowing what’s happening–and the scorn of her mother, who believes that “After the blood the boys come. Like sniffing dogs, grinning and slobbering, trying to find out where that smell is.”

I can’t believe I’m about to go all Freudian here, but for the male viewer the shock of seeing unexpected blood between one’s legs clearly represents a fear of castration–a literal embodiment of King’s anxieties about feminism. From the woman’s perspective, the menstrual blood obviously signifies Carrie’s maturation–coming into her power–which has been marred by fundamentalism.

10304319383_31b0b70ec7Without making the new remake of the movie any more violent, director Kimberly Peirce emphasizes the imagery of this inciting event by adding waaaaay more blood to her Carrie. When Carrie gets her period in the shower, there’s more blood than in Brian De Palma’s film. When Carrie gets some of that blood on her gym teacher, which happens in both films, Peirce adds more of it, and the camera lingers on it longer and returns to it more often.

When Carrie’s mother locks her in the closet, Peirce has the crucifix bleed–something that doesn’t happen in the first movie. The blood of the crucifix connects Carrie’s first period to the suffering of Christ, deepening the relationship between debased femininity and religion.

Then, when Carrie gets pig blood dumped on her head at the prom, there’s not just more of it in the second film: Pierce shows the blood landing on her in slow motion three times. This final deluge of blood echoes a scene that Pierce added to the beginning of the movie, in which Carrie’s mother endures the bloody birth of her daughter. Carrie, then, is essentially born again at the prom, and the devastation she wreaks can be read as a result not of her feminine power but of the corruption of it by religion.

Peirce told Women and Hollywood that her goal was to make Carrie as sympathetic as possible. She removes the male gaze aspect of the original shower scene, in which many of the girls are naked and the long, slow shots of Carrie’s body are rather pornified. She makes sympathy for Carrie’s primary nemesis at school pretty much impossible by changing her from an angry girl in an abusive relationship to a sociopath without a conscience. In the new film, Carrie even has the strength to challenge her mother’s theology. Her prom date is more likeable and Peirce uses his death–something De Palma doesn’t reveal until the end–as further motivation for Carrie’s rampage.

None of this changes the fact that Carrie dies at the end, but it does foreground the idea that the message doesn’t have to be that powerful women are indeed dangerous. It can be that fundamentalism is dangerous to women.

If you’re a feminist, I say go see Carrie. Watching her be destroyed–but not without taking out a lot of the patriarchy with her–and then, as a viewer, emerging again into the sunlight unscathed, allows feminists to process some of our deepest fears about what we’re up against. Then we can get on with making the world a place where religious beliefs don’t corrupt our sexuality, where women don’t have to destroy themselves to be powerful and where women’s equality doesn’t trigger men’s fear of their own doom.

Photos courtesy of Jade and thefanboyseo1 via Creative Commons 2.0

Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom. For more of the Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, check out Parts OneTwo, Three, and Four.

Originally Published by HowlRound

Though Shakespeare created around 798 male characters, his dramatic corpus contains only about 149 female ones. That’s a ratio of roughly sixteen to three. Yet every year the best conservatories accept at least as many women as men—if not more—and every year they graduate both men and women trained to act in Shakespeare plays. The women are even trained to swordfight. Ninety nine percent of them never get to use that skill.

The difference undoubtedly accounts for why so many talented women create their own opportunities to play the full range of Shakespeare’s best roles, including male ones. This month two productions on opposite sides of the country are providing women with just that chance. The Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company is running Hamlet, directed by and starring Lisa Wolpe, and Taffety Punk in Washington, D.C., is producing Riot Grrrls: Titus Andronicus, directed by Lise Bruneau.

Titus is the fifth all-female Shakespeare production of Taffety Punk. Their first, Romeo and Juliet, was staged as a companion to/protest of an all-male production of the play at D.C.’s prominent The Shakespeare Theatre Company. Bruneau, inspired by Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, and Fiona Shaw’s Richard II, has always been interested in the performance of gender. However, with her Riot Grrrl productions, she’s interested less in staging a commentary than in staging good Shakespeare.

Lisa Wolpe has been running the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company for 20 years. This is her second Hamlet. Like Bruneau, she doesn’t consider what she does a “concept.” She does it because the parts are great, because she loves it, and because she’s good at it. 

Though both directors are wary of doing anything in production to comment on the sex of the actors, they acknowledge that inevitably text about gender—and there is a great deal of it in Shakespeare—becomes especially loaded when the entire cast is made up of women: Just imagine Claudius as a woman in drag criticizing Hamlet for his “womanish” tears. Both directors have also dipped their toes into gender flipping. Bruneau’s Measure for Measure included a pregnant Provost, which I imagine highlighted the hypocrisy of punishing Juliet for something everyone is doing. Wolpe has made her Rosencrantz a woman and believes that doing so reveals something about the nature of the relationship between Rosencrantz and Hamlet.

“Rosencrantz is a player, a woman with an agenda, who wants certain things for herself. She is a player who then gets played by Hamlet,” said Wolpe, during our interview. “And there are women like that. There are women characters in Hamlet like that. Gertrude stands twenty feet away from Ophelia and watches her drown.”

Though the actors in these companies are in it for the opportunity to play great roles and not to study sociology, the fact that their characters are men means that acting the part is different than it is when they play characters of the same sex, and that involves understanding the ways behavior is gendered. Bruneau has interesting insights into the outside-in process of building a character, who has a different relationship to the world by virtue of his gender than the female actor.

“We have found that changing your physical stance changes the impulse,” she said. “Once you change that it can start opening doors to a different perception of information and a different way of responding. It leads to a lot of discoveries about the differences of the sexes, of which there are many.”

Bruneau volunteered an example. “One of the most basic differences we’ve found is that women tend to sort of reach their chin forward as they’re talking and listening, and really try to encourage the other person to speak. We reach forward with our whole face. Men tend to sort of sit back and to receive and they tend to not reach. So that’s a very simple physical difference that makes you realize that they are dealing with everything based on a completely different type of experience than you are.”

According to Wolpe, women tend to break the alignment and the angles in their bodies, their wrists, their elbows. “Usually they’re off their voices, their heads are tilted, their faces are going in one direction and their hips in another, their hands turned open in a helpless ‘what can I do?’ supinated position—not because they’re doing anything wrong, but because that’s what you’re trained to do as an American girl,” she said.

“You’re trained to disempower yourself, to make yourself look less strong, more delicate, more ‘oh push me off of my pumps and I’ll be unable to resist the rape’ type of a thing. It’s not believable in a man who doesn’t have any threats.”

Wolpe went on to elaborate,  “This is a crazy quick map through how to play a guy, but basically: it’s not your fault, you don’t take it on, and if you hurt somebody’s feelings, they’ll get over it or they won’t but it’s really not your problem. The thing about women is we usually anticipate having an apology before there’s even an event. Men don’t negotiate. They command.”

The end game for Wolpe is a production in which the quality of the text and the acting enable audience members to forget that most of the roles are men being played by women. However, when I saw Hamlet, I did not ever forget that the performers were all women. In fact, I yearned for the fact to be more foregrounded. Though Rosencrantz was a woman, no use was made of the possibility that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could be a couple, which would have been logical and, given, the eroticism that pervades Shakespeare’s male-male pairs, not un-Shakespearean. Similarly, the revelation about Gertrude’s character did not result in her coming across as any more cold-hearted or self-serving than she usually does.

Bruneau reports similar responses from critics in D.C. who expect her productions to do more with gender, but the Riot Grrrl aspect of her shows represents a desire to be accepted as a serious artist and not be singled out for being a woman doing a man’s thing. Similarly, Wolpe repeatedly expressed frustration that people expect her to do anything other than what the greatest actors of their times have always done when playing these roles: Play them well. 

Unfortunately, productions that keep all the male characters male inadvertently preserve the gender status quo: In their play-worlds, the men still have all the power. On the other hand, flipping some of the male characters and gendering them female would reveal a world in which women can be powerful, violent, and vengeful, too. Women can woo their lovers, protect their families, and command armies. (They could in Shakespeare’s time, too, whether he represented them as such or not.) The practice also reinforces a false binary in which men are always masculine and women are always feminine, whereas in reality some men and women defy gendered norms of behavior.

As pleased as I am to watch well-trained women deliver fantastic performances of the kind they too rarely have an opportunity to give, I yearn for a production that reveals that behaviors defined as masculine can be embodied both by women playing men, and by women playing women. Changing gender pronouns does not disrupt the verse—he, she, her, and him are all monosyllabic. Though Anglo-Saxon names like John might require some tinkering, modern audiences are unused to Latin, so they can easily accept most character names as either male or female. If anything, the timelessness and universality of Shakespeare’s stories become even more apparent when they are populated by people of all colors, shapes, sizes, and sexes.

In the meantime, both companies continue to receive rave reviews. Though some Shakespeare purists may still wring their hands at the prospect of women playing men’s roles, Wolpe says her experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.

“There’s never been a negative comment about an all-female production. There never has been in twenty years. I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘You’re ruining the play.’”

Now that these companies, along with Judith Shakespeare and The Queen’s Company in New York as well as others across the country have proven that women are capable of playing roles with all of the depth and complexity of Shakespeare’s male characters, I hope they’ll turn to creating play-worlds in which women don’t have to pretend to be men in order to be powerful.


Images: Lisa Wolpe as Hamlet. Photo credit: Kevin Sprague. Riot Grrrls production of Julius Caesar. Photo credit: Abby Wood.

Hollywood Fringe PicOriginally posted at HowlRound.

This year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival–only the fourth in it’s history–featured 212 separate productions in 50 different spaces for a total of more than 1,000 performances. They took in $258,000, all of which went directly back to the individual productions. For a city not known for its theater, that’s no small beans.

The Hollywood Fringe, like most Fringe Festivals, places a premium on being uncurated: Provided you can afford the $250 registration fee, the rental of a theater, and your own marketing and production expenses, anyone can participate.  Unlike with the New York International Film Festival, which is curated and provides space and publicity for its shows, participants in the Hollywood Fringe are required to be their own producers, from choosing a suitable venue to targeting their audience to setting their own ticket prices. As with individually mounted productions, every show keeps 100% of their ticket sales.

This focus on entrepreneurship constitutes one of the central aims of the company behind the Hollywood Fringe. Los Angeles is flush with actors and directors, but despite all the film producers, the city has relatively few theatrical producers. Festival Director Ben Hill says he structured the Fringe as a collective of self-produced shows in order to solve that problem:

To run any kind of theatrical endeavor in this town you can’t just throw a bunch of actors together and think that fantastic things are going to happen. You need at least one person that is business-minded, that knows how to put a marketing plan together, to create the financial environment in which great art can thrive. Otherwise all the actors are always stressing about money and they shouldn’t be. They should be stressing about creating great art.

In addition to providing participating shows with discounts from marketing vendors and affordable theater rental prices, the Hollywood Fringe offers artists a kind of producer-training program in the form of town halls and workshops that guide artists through creating a budget, a Kickstarter, and a marketing plan.

As a result, the Festival hosts productions of all sizes, from one person sitting in a chair to multi-media productions to musicals with live bands, reflecting an astonishing variety of ways to make theater. The downside to this structure is that groups with more money can afford a nicer space, better design, more marketing, and ads in the Fringe program, which constitutes an advantage over other participants in attracting audiences and winning the coveted Festival awards.

The awards ceremony was the first time I had the opportunity to see all of the Fringe participants in one place, and though I thought I had seen a number of shows, I was astonished by the number of productions I hadn’t even heard of. Because the central Fringe organization provides no marketing for the actual productions, the only way for shows to get the attention of the press is to have the money and know-how to pitch us on their own. I therefore chose what to see not based on content, style, or on what the HowlRound audience would be interested– in fact the Fringe website provides little guidance in sorting through hundreds of offerings–but rather on which individual shows invited me.

At the ceremony, I was disappointed to see that though I had attended a number of shows by people of color, I had actually seen most of the shows by people of color at the Festival. Furthermore, many of the shows I saw were by black writers, but I was unable to find any productions by or about Latinos or Asians at all. When asked why he thinks the Festival lacks the same diversity that characterizes the city–Latinos make up 48% and Asians 15% of the Los Angeles population–Hill responded,

The thing about open access is we don’t invite, we don’t solicit. We put the flag out there and say gather round the flag. It’s just a matter of who responds. We don’t recruit, but everyone is invited.

This perspective, common to people in positions of privilege who have been taught to assume they are always welcome, fails to take into account the fact that without a pre-existing sense of belonging to a shared community–a problem the Festival says it aims to redress–not everyone is in a position to see the metaphorical flag. In terms of future outreach, Hill believes that,

The best thing we can do in terms of outreach is to have a giant, huge, and successful festival so people can read about it and say, ‘Oh that looks really interesting, I can produce whatever show I want, I want to do that.’

Unfortunately, the longer the Hollywood Fringe is known as a relatively homogeneous event, the less likely other groups will be to participate. If Hill and his team want a Fringe that reflects the reality of life in Los Angeles, they will have to make a concerted effort to diversify before the Festival gets any bigger.

Though I question whether anything so market driven can actually be “open-access,” as the Fringe calls itself, the emphasis on producer-training is sure to serve the Los Angeles theater community immeasurably. Judging from the bonhomie among the parts of the Los Angeles theater community involved in the Festival, it is well on its way to achieving what Hill calls their larger purpose:

Los Angeles is tricky when it comes to theater because it’s so vast and dispersed, a problem public transportation hasn’t been able to solve. There is no one place to see theater. So one month out of the year we provide a true sense of place, a sense that if you come to this place you will see people you know, you’ll see people you saw theater with, made theater with, talked about theater with. And any time when artists are congregated in the same place for any period of time, that’s when movements happen.

eternal_thou2_webOriginally posted at HowlRound.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I was wary of attending the theater. LA is an industry town, and if there’s one thing I’m not interested in, it’s staged screenplays. Don’t get me wrong–I love film. I just don’t want to see it on stage. Because technology allows for far more realistic representations on film than we can ever hope to achieve live, I want to see theater that is truly theatrical–that makes use of the presence of the performers, the visibility of the apparatus, and the constraints of space and time. On film, moment-to-moment story is created through editing. In the theater, all we have is our bodies, the room, and the audience.

At the same time, the world we live in is increasingly technicized and increasingly virtual. “Reality” is no longer defined simply as “real life.” Today we have many “realities:” who we are in-person, who we are on social media, our avatars, our handles. We are now capable of creating as many realities for ourselves as we desire. If theater is to speak to our current conditions, it therefore must deal with the effect technological advancement is having on human relationships.

So where does an Angeleno go for theater that is explicitly theatrical but that also deals with contemporary realities that are increasingly technological? I missed Matthew McCray‘s Eternal Thou when it opened in L.A. last year, so I was pleased to see–via social media, natch–that it was being remounted at South Coast Repertory in Orange County (an affluent and politically conservative area just south of Los Angeles). South Coast Repertory is known nationally for it’s annual Pacific Playwrights Festival of five readings and two productions of new plays. Less well-known is a program designed to strengthen ties to the local theater community and provide “alternative programming” to their traditional main stage: Studio SCR.

In order to bring their audience into contact with theater from the surrounding environs and to bring audience from those environs to South Coast Rep, Studio SCR provides brief residencies for companies and artists not located in Orange County. One of six productions mounted through the program this year, Eternal Thou is simultaneously a story about the invention and development of the internet and a philosophical meditation on the nature of human relationships.

In 90 minutes, five actors–all of whom remain on stage the whole time–move in and out of a variety of realities. They enact both historical events, like the first computer-to-computer phone calls and the ongoing fight to maintain net neutrality, and metaphorical ones in which the characters move in and out of the internet itself. Essentially, Eternal Thou is sci-fi theater.

A cautionary tale of sorts, Eternal Thou perfectly fits famed-fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s definition of science fiction as that which “extrapolate[s] imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire.” The play embodies technological forces like computer code and hacking in human characters to create a world in which people are being “programmed,” whether they know it or not. Via the philosophy of Martin Buber, it warns against the objectification of the other that necessarily results from technologically mediated communication and encourages us to hold on to the holy nature of human-to-human contact.

At the same time, the production celebrates the very technologies that threaten to overwhelm us. A combination of projections, electronic and live sound, television sets, and a scrim that makes some projections appear to be holograms, the designs of Sarah Krainin, Adam Flemming, Ian Garrett,and Joseph “Sloe’ Slawinski entrance spectators even as the play warns against allowing technology to determine our fates. And yet despite the profusion of special effects, the audience never forgets they are in a theater: A mass of conduits and wires hangs in front of a table off to the side, only partially obscuring the director and stage manager running the show. The actors interact athletically with the design, and their physical presence as well as their vocalizations (some of the best sound effects are created by them) grounds the piece’s philosophical and technological underpinnings in the real time of the theater.

The Studio SCR remount of Eternal Thou gave McCray a chance to cut 30 minutes from the piece and strengthen the story as well as the central metaphor. Partly because of that and partly because of the somewhat surprising open-mindedness of the OC audience, McCray confirmed that reception was even more positive this time around than in LA:

I really worried that because of the experimental nature of the piece, the South Coast audience might not be as receptive as LA, but actually they were more receptive. In LA I was getting notes from people like, “Just look at the form of movies. Go back to movies.” At SCR I could feel them thinking. To me that’s a message that even being as abstract as it is, the play provides a universal experience.

It’s hard to imagine that Orange County residents who see these Studio productions will then travel north to see more of Los Angeles’ experimental theater, but by bringing LA artists south, SCR is certainly expanding their audiences’ notion of what the theater can be. That they can do that gives me hope that we can get the half of LA that can’t stop thinking in terms of the three-act structure to consider the possibility of new forms as well.

In California–home not just to the film and television industry but also to Silicon Valley–the media is always the message, or as the play puts it:

There’s no division anymore, no division between what’s real and what’s not.

If theater is to speak to the technological here and now in which we find ourselves, new definitions of realism are in order, and in my opinion, science “fiction” is a great place to start.

hff13-hollywood-fringe-festival-2013-poster-lgThe “Best of Fringe Extensions” program has swung into full gear, and, excited for the chance to see some of the shows I missed the first time around, I went to the Hollywood Fringe website looking for a list of shows. I went to the home page, then the blog, then the “about” section. Nothing. No list of shows and no link to the Best of Fringe Extensions (a separate entity) home page, despite the fact that the shows are all still selling tickets through the Fringe site. Even the Extensions home page only provides lists of shows once you’ve already clicked on a venue.

Hmmmm, I thought, doing my best Marge Simpson.

This communication gap reflects a frustration I’ve had with the Fringe website all along–it does nothing to help potential audience members who don’t know the artists and haven’t been personally invited figure out what to see. The broad and seemingly overlapping categories are not further broken down by any meaningful system of tags, meaning that A) clicking on a category only narrows down your choices to, in one case, 67 shows, and B) that potential audience members who don’t see what they’re looking for in the categories have no other way to peruse shows by interest. In addition, the meanings of the categories themselves are opaque. What does ensemble theater mean? Why is there comedy but no tragedy? Does comedy really mean stand up? Why are so many solo shows listed under comedy and not under solo performance? If an audience member clicks on solo performance, shouldn’t she be able to assume that all of the solo shows are listed there?

The lack of a link to the Best of Fringe Extensions page also illuminates a larger confusion about what Best of Fringe Extensions means. According to the Best of Fringe Extensions website, the shows are chosen because they have “artistic merit, commercial viability, and development potential.” However, I saw many shows that met all three criteria and yet were not extended. At least one show that sold out every performance, for example, did not “win” Best of Fringe.

It’s not just the participants who need to know. The audience should know what it’s being sold. For example, how does the Extensions program define “artistic merit”? Does “development potential” refer to artistic development? In other words, if a show is finished, is it not considered? Or is development potential really another way of saying commercial viability? Best of Fringe Extensions is framed as a competition which certain shows “win.” A public statement as to criteria for winning would make the win more plumb for the artists and more meaningful for the audience.

Mind you, I say these things out of love. Cindy Marie Jenkins‘ made a great list of this year’s successful engagement strategies and I agree with all of them. As someone who is  just getting involved in the Los Angeles theater community, the Fringe provided an invaluable opportunity for me to meet fellow travelers on the artistic road. By training producers and bringing most (not all–more on that later) of the Los Angeles theater community together, the Fringe provides a valuable service, not to mention fosters a lot of great art.

Speaking of art …

The Miss Julie Dream Project, created by the relatively new group Fell Swoop Playwrights, made the most of the likelihood that audiences at Fringe Festivals would be theater people by creating a piece of theater that could best be appreciated by them. This is not to say you can’t appreciate the show if you don’t know Strindberg’s Miss Julie and A Dream Play as well as say, a theater professor. In addition to drawing on those dense texts, the play engages as its central trope the nightmare we’ve all had in one form or another: Some people dream that they have to take a test for a class they never went to. Some dream that they have to play a concert but don’t have their instrument. Theater people dream that it’s opening night and we haven’t rehearsed.

Blending pop culture references with the fever-dream logic that characterized Strindberg’s inferno of a mind, the show delves into sexual politics, desire, and authorship without ever resorting to the dogmatism that characterizes the originals. Rather, Miss Julie and her dreams are effectively removed from the birth-is-destiny philosophy of Naturalism, enabling us to examine them in the context of a modern woman’s life. Turns out, we’re still being objectified and put on pedestals of off which we are bound to fall.

Time Machine: The Musical made the most of another moment: The current popularity of genre fiction. The dystopian themes of H.G. Wells’ 1895 futuristic novel–social degeneration and human devolution–can be found in contemporary films like The Hunger Games, Elysium, and Oblivion.

This full-length musical was on its way to production when the market crashed. For creator Steve Altman, the Fringe provided an opportunity to keep the show alive on a small budget. It’s musical style is suited to Broadway, and  a well-designed production would no doubt dazzle. But in the context of the Fringe, this stripped-down, hour-long version, complete with moving performances and elegant staging, proves that unlike film and television, theater has the capacity to engage the audience’s imagination without a lot of tech.

In a Fringe as focused on entrepreneurship as this one is, the shows that have the resources and the personnel to market themselves are, with a few exceptions, going to be the ones to attract the most audience, win awards, and get extensions. Neither the Hollywood Fringe nor the Best of Fringe Extensions program may see it as their job to level the playing field, but defining the terms of the competition would at least allow smaller groups the opportunity to find creative ways to compete with fewer resources. Entrepreneurship should not just be about money, but when money is the only thing that buys success, it’s hard for it to be about anything else.

Holly L. Derr is a writer and director and professor of theater. Her final piece on the Fringe will appear in a few weeks on HowlRound. Follow her @hld6oddblend.

The Hollywood Fringe Festival, like most Fringes, is all about freedom of expression. Taking after it’s mother-ship The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, The Hollywood Fringe mission states that it “is completely open and uncensored. This free-for-all approach underlines the festival’s mission to be a platform for artists without the barrier of a curative body.” Perhaps that’s what makes the Fringe a perfect place for one-person, autobiographical shows–the absence of an institutional force mediating what the audience sees is mirrored in the show’s lack of a fictional narrative mediating between performer and audience. The result is a plethora of solo shows.

collage_lb_image_page2_14_1Tiffany Phillips, whose piece I Never Met a Jerk I Didn’t Like sold out every performance, says she created her show out of a desire to turn her personal experience into something positive:

I went through a rough period in the love department. My self esteem was in the dirt and I needed to pull myself out of it, so I started writing. I’ve always felt that comedy and laughter are a great healer. Instead of whining and complaining about these “Jerks,” I wrote about it and turned a negative into a positive.

Phillips avoids the self-indulgent trap so many solo shows fall into by creating a colorful cast of characters that are distinctly not her:

These men I dated were such “characters” that I knew I had to bring them to life on stage. People relate. Both men and women. We’ve all been there. The woes of dating are a universal theme.

In a performance that echoes the physical and vocal transformations of Anna Deavere Smith, Phillips manages to tell a story that is personal, entertaining, and cathartic.

FINAL IMG_6138Jacquetta Szathmari’s That’s Funny. You Didn’t Sound Black on the Phone took on the explicitly political subject that informs her personal life. She relates,

I had been doing standup based on my experiences growing up in extreme rural Maryland and not fitting in with “my people” and a lot of black people would pull me aside and whisper that I was telling their story. It’s hard to get enough stage time to really examine the race/class issues I wanted to tackle so I figured, I’ll do my own show and see what happens.

Szathmari, who does not consider herself an actor per se, quotes characters in a storytelling style rather than embodying them in theatrical characterizations. Most of the time, she simply speaks as herself. This personal narrative combined with direct eye-contact with the audience and a few in-the-moment asides allows even audience members whose lives are nothing like Szathmari’s to enter completely into her world.

hkiofs3v-980x980Keena Ferguson, a dancer and film and television actor, says she had seen very few solo shows when she began work on Keena: Unbranded The Solo Experience, so she didn’t feel confined by expectations that she’d be presenting a certain kind of theater. Her process, she says, was similarly free-form:

I started writing the stories that spoke to me immediately and I just wrote them with no editing at all. Kind of free writing. I picked songs I knew I wanted in the show to dance to. Then when I first met with Tanya Alexander, my director, I would just read them to her. My show is non-linear so there was no order at all to the flow of the show and then I had these dance pieces that were there. It was like a collage.

Ferguson employs a live musician as well as recorded sound as she moves in and out of dance, first-person storytelling, and characterizations of the important people in her life. She takes the audience on a journey from her life as Miss Ohio to the travails of getting started as an actor and dancer in LA, which invites the audience to consider that even the most beautiful women have to work to succeed.

MV5BMTY3OTU5NzA3N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjEzMzk3OA@@._V1._SX450SY450_Rati Gupta’s Not Another Teen Solo Show takes yet another approach by using pop culture to connect with the audience. She says she began writing when on a visit home:

I was bored, so I started reading through my old journals and was HORRIFIED by my high school self. I used to watch movies that paralleled whatever situation I was currently dealing with, thinking that they would guide me out of it. I kept comparing myself to Rachael Leigh Cook from She’s All That. When I reminisced with my friends about high school and all those teen movies, I realized that I wasn’t the only one whose expectations of love, friendships and the future were so affected by the TV/movies. These stories of mine weren’t a fluke, they were universal, and incredibly entertaining in hindsight.

Unlike with That’s Funny. You Didn’t Sound Black on the Phone, in which the artist’s race is the subject of the narrative, Gupta’s show makes only one reference to her Indian heritage as it tells the hilarious and universal story of a typical teenager in Indiana who just wants to be popular. 

Gupta, Szathmari, Ferguson, and Phillips all found the Fringe Festival both a great place to experiment–they all changed their scripts in the course of their runs–and a great way to make what Festival Director Ben Hill calls “Fringeships.” Gupta put it this way:

Being a solo show writer/performer is lonely. Outside of your circle of personal friends and handful of artistic collaborators, you don’t really have that many people championing your work. With a fringe festival though, you’re thrown into this crazy fun mess of other creative people. People-power is clutch when it comes to solo shows. You CANNOT do one on your own, as ironic as that may be. Surrounding yourself with as many like-minded, positive, and supportive people, which is SO easy to do at fringe festivals, is incredibly important. It makes the whole process less stressful and more rewarding in the end.

Just as the Festival does not put itself in between the artist and the audience, these solo shows eliminate the fiction that usually provides viewers with a way to distance themselves from the artists. During these performances, the audience can’t disappear into the dark anonymity of the theater. Luckily–given the quality of the material–they don’t want to.

org_img_1366920767_LCross posted at Ms.

Apparently, some things never get old.

Neil LaBute, screenwriter of such movies as a remake of the 1973 film The Wicker Man, about crazy, man-killing witches, has adapted the misogynist classic Miss Julie, written in 1888 by August Strindberg. (If you haven’t heard of Strindberg, think Rush Limbaugh as a 19th-century Swedish playwright: avowedly sexist, angry as hell and determined to use his platform to debunk such radical ideas as “women are human beings.”)

Miss Julie is often praised as one of the best examples of Naturalism in the theater, which strove to present humanity without any veneer in all it’s sexy, shitty, greedy glory. It takes place in 90 minutes, set in one location and features only three characters: an aristocrat named Miss Julie, her father’s valet, Jean, and the cook, Christine, who is also Jean’s fiancé.

On a midsummer night at Julie’s father’s estate, the patriarch is away and thus the servants are at play at an offstage party in the barn. Miss Julie takes a break from dancing with her servants, which is scandal enough, to flirt with Jean and have a few drinks in the kitchen. An overt display of sexuality and mutual seduction culminates in sex, after which Jean proposes they run away together and open a hotel. When Julie says she wants to go with him but cannot supply him with the seed money (the money is all her father’s, obviously), Jean turns cold, calling her a whore and proclaiming:

You lackey lover! You bootback tramp! Shut your mouth and get out of here! … I’ve never seen anybody in my class behave as crudely as you did tonight … I’ve never seen the like of it except in animals and prostitutes!

And then he convinces her to kill herself.

LaBute has set his adaptation—currently playing at The Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles—in 1929, dresses Julie as a flapper and makes Jean into John, whose Long Island accent never lets us forget his class. Unfortunately, these choices do nothing to improve on the intentions of the original. In fact, they serve largely to betray the playwright’s inability to accept that, despite Strindberg’s predictions, feminism hasn’t actually destroyed society. In both versions, Miss Julie’s inappropriate sexual behavior is the result of a radical mother who raised her “to believe in equality, the independence of women, and all that;” taught her “everything a boy learns;” and even dressed her in boys’ clothes. LaBute’s setting simply replaces the feminist boogeymen that inspired Strindberg—a growing societal belief in women’s right to education, legal recognition that women could own property and plays like fellow Scandinavian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in which a woman dares to assert her humanity—with the success of the suffrage movement, the growing availability of birth control, the New Woman and her daughter, the flapper.

LaBute does nothing to address the historical inconsistencies that this creates. Whereas Strindberg’s Miss Julie’s behavior represented a radical departure from that of her peers, LaBute’s Miss Julie, as signified by the flapper dress, is part of a massive, culture-wide trend of women taking their lives and their sexuality into their own hands. Additionally, as Lisa Hix recently pointed out on The Ms. Blog, despite the prevailing image of the flapper as Gatsby‘s wealthy Daisy Buchanan, the flapper movement actually originated among the working class. Nevertheless, LaBute slut-shames his Julie just like Strindberg does, and she, accordingly, hates herself, just as if she were a Victorian aristocrat.

While Strindberg’s characters do go back and forth between extreme and seemingly contradictory behavior, these contradictions remain internal to the characters and in fact become clear only when considered in relation to the stringent social mores and resulting hypocrisy of the time. LaBute’s context provides no such throughline. On the contrary, it only makes it more baffling that these two people carry around this much guilt. Lily Rabe as Julie furthers the confusion by affecting an accent and timbre of voice obviously modeled off of Katherine Hepburn. Sounding like the epitome of the self-defined woman that Hepburn was, while doing and saying things that neither Hepburn nor any character she ever played would do or say, only makes this Julie even more anachronistic, especially since Hepburn wasn’t popular until the ’30s. On the other hand, the choice does drive home the fact that the playwright thinks women in pants are a bad idea.

Perhaps because the parallel doesn’t actually work, LaBute doesn’t address the period other than through Julie’s costume. During an hour-and-45 minute play in which both characters’ main action is “to drink,” he never once refers to the fact that at the time during which he set the play, alcohol was illegal and not in small part because of strong women asserting their cultural influence through organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. While Strindberg’s play features a company of reveling servants who enter the kitchen and dance while Jean and Julie fuck offstage, LaBute’s version fails to take advantage of the fact that a little Charleston or Snakehips could have done a lot to contextualize the offstage action as well as serving, as Strindberg’s dance does, as a visceral metaphor for sex. As a result, the only thing the adaptation adds to the original is running time.

Jo Bonney, who has worked with LaBute before, directs this world premiere. Though Bonney often gets pigeonholed as the woman director who works on really masculine plays, at least half the playwrights she’s worked with have been women. Here Bonney does the job of a director on a new play: She brings what LaBute wrote faithfully to life. But though a director has no control over what the characters say and do, she does have some influence over why. Bonney could have structured the cause and effect of the performance to tell the story of a woman shamed into an unnecessary death rather than that of a woman doomed by her mother’s feminism.

Strindberg would later suffer no fewer than three psychological breakdowns—one for each marriage—during which, for example, he accused one wife of trying to drive him crazy by sending rays through the walls. (Some scholars credit these breakdowns to drug-induced experiments he performed on himself as part of his dabblings in alchemy and the occult.) Perhaps history will provide us with some insight into LaBute’s obsession with stories that punish strong women and warn society against the dangers they presumably pose. I was hoping his Miss Julie would be more than yet another incarnation of his same old thing, but alas.

Unfortunately, slut-shaming still sells.

Photo by Michael Lamont of Logan Marshall-Green as John and Lily Rabe as Miss Julie in Neil LaBute’s world-premiere adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie at The Geffen Playhouse.

evil-dead-poster1Cross posted at Ms.

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains major spoilers. Also, TRIGGER WARNING: RAPE.

I am not really into gore for gore’s sake: When I go to horror movies, I want to be held in suspense and suddenly surprised, not just grossed out. Luckily for Sam Raimi fans, the new version of the 1981 cult classic Evil Dead manages to combine both surprise and gore. Using Raimi’s signature vertigo-inducing camera work and long, taut pauses, the new movie keeps you on the edge of your seat—until the tension is broken by something terrifying and you practically jump out of it. It’s also got blood. Lots and lots and lots of blood.

The first Evil Dead was a low-budget film that used such old-fashioned techniques as stop-motion to make bodies appear to melt. Though next-gen director Fede Alvarez also used mostly trick props, body modifications and makeup with very few digital effects, the gore in this film is decidedly more realistic than in the original. Likewise, the new film takes itself and the horror genre far more seriously than its melodramatic inspiration.

Though in a clear homage to Evil Dead II, not just one but two people have to sever their own limbs, Evil Dead is not torture porn. Despite its realism, the new movie is still about demons possessing people and doing horrible things to the bodies they are in as well as to the bodies around them. This film is about supernatural evil, not human evil, and the basic human fears it draws on are as much spiritual and psychological as physical. This violence exists not for its own sake, but to teach the characters a lesson, and this time around, the lesson is different.

In fact the film is not strictly a remake but rather a “what if five kids showed up at the same cabin from the first Evil Dead, and had roughly the same things happen to them that happened to the five kids who stayed there 32 years ago?”  Alvarez and Raimi have said they hope to make another Evil Dead II and then bring the two story lines together in Army of Darkness II, implying that the protagonist from this film might meet up with a grown up Ash (Bruce Campbell), from the first. I hope it happens, because the updates this film makes to the original makes the new movie more feminist.

In the first movie, Ash is clearly at a disadvantage due to his sentimental connection to his girlfriend and his sister. You see, in the Evil Dead world, once a demon possesses a body the only way to get rid of the demon is to dismember the body, burn it, or bury it alive. Ash, signified as a girly man by his name–which is really Ashley–cannot accept that the bodies that used to be his loved ones are demons, hesitates to destroy them, and suffers as a result. Though at the end Ash is saved by a symbol of his love for his girlfriend, there is no doubt that the lesson he has learned from his bout with evil is that he has to be ruthless.

In the new movie, David has come back to the cabin, which his family now owns, for the first time in years. He brings his girlfriend and meets two childhood friends there to help his sister detox. But David is disadvantaged not by his sentimental connections to the women in his life, but rather by the fact that he has failed to stay close enough to his family. Named like a king, the manly man David missed his mother’s prolonged illness and death and hasn’t seen his sister in so long he can’t really say he knows her very well at all. His fight with evil teaches him a very different lesson than the one Ash needed to learn: It teaches him to trust his sister and to be willing to sacrifice himself for his family.

Much to the chagrin of feminists, yes, the new movie does include a version of the infamous tree rape scene in the original, but the changes to it are telling. Whereas in the original, Ash’s sister Cheryl is held down to the ground by the branches of possessed trees, in the new movie, David’s sister Mia is held suspended in the air. And whereas in the original the trees are humanized in the ways they hold Cheryl down, the trees in the new film are distinctly trees. The resulting image is more like that of Christ or the figure at the center of DiVinci’s Vitruvian man than that of a woman being held down by a rapist.

The actor’s response to the rape is also different. Whereas in the original, when penetrated, the woman on the ground began to make sexual sounds and to breathe as if having sex, in the new movie, the actor is clearly in terror the entire time. This is violence, not sex. Most importantly, though neither Cheryl nor Mia’s friends believe her when she says she was raped, Cheryl never gets any justice, and her brother Ash escapes alive despite his doubt. Mia’s friends, on the other hand, all die, even her brother David, who finally learns that protecting the women in his life is more important than protecting himself.

Bruce Campbell said on twitter that “Evil Dead is omni-gender in its violence,” but that’s not entirely true. The only sexual assault committed is against a woman, and the only characters who cut themselves are women. But the point of feminism in film is not to avoid representing the horrible things that happen to women; it is to show that women survive despite them.

In the new Evil Dead, Mia is the only one left standing at the end. She slaughters the main demon in an act of physical strength (aided by a chainsaw, natch) that Cheryl could never have accomplished. If only Mia’s friends had believed her instead of dismissing her as hysterical and judging her by her past, they, too might have lived. But neither what the trees did to her nor the losses she has suffered will hold Mia back. This protagonist will not be a victim again.

At least not until the next Evil Dead II.


Warning: This post contains language which may be considered profane, sexist, ironic, feminist and/or totally quotidian.

Oh Mamet. Mamet Mamet Mamet Mamet Mamet. Fuuuuucking Mamet.”Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting. In his tail? In his tongue.”

Ask almost any theater practitioner what they like about David Mamet and they’ll tell you: It’s the words. The text. The language. The fact that the words are the actions. Mamet, they will tell you, is always playable. There’s no bullshit exposition or sob-story character development, it’s just people acting on people in a kill-or-be-killed world. It’s like Shakespeare, they’ll say, down to the punctuation. The words suit the action and the actions suit the words.

Ask almost any feminist what they think of Mamet and they’ll tell you: sexist. Racist. Abusive. Antagonistic to telling women’s stories. I was a college theater student when Oleanna, a play inspired by the Anita Hill hearings about a professor accused of sexual harassment by a student, came out, and I was horrified. By some interpretations, the story’s logic makes it seem as if a woman calling out harassment is a woman asking to have the shit kicked out of her. After the student successfully gets the professor fired, he savagely beats her. Blorch. Not cool. And yet, for 19 years, everywhere I’ve done theater, from New York City to Cambridge, Mass., to Los Angeles, I’ve had people tell me, “Mamet depicts real life, real people.” “You should read True or False, it’s the best book on acting ever.” “His writing captures the rhythms of real life.”

What better occasion for a theater feminist to take a second look at Mamet the Man and his damn Mamet Speak than last week’s cross-sex cast reading of his iconic film script Glengarry Glen Ross, directed by Jason Reitman (Juno) and produced by Film Independent at LACMA as part of their Live Read Series. (Sidebar: Doesn’t the fact that Mamet Speak has a name indicate that it’s probably not how people actually talk? My opinion: Mamet’s language, if comparable at all, is almost as heightened as Shakespeare’s.)


To be clear, the script read was not the play Glengarry Glen Ross but the screenplay for the movie Glengarry Glen Ross (see plot summary here), including the scene featuring Alec Baldwin (“ABC: Always – Be – Closing”), which was not in the original play. During the reading, Reitman, accompanied by projections of stills from the movie with the actors edited out, read enough of the action for the audience to understand the context. Large-type signs on each of the actor’s music stands named their primary character.

John Williamson, played in the film by Kevin Spacey, was performed by Mae Whitman. Carla Gugino set the house on fire as Blake (Alec Baldwin in the film). Catherine O’Hara outdid herself as Shelley “The Machine” Levene (Jack Lemmon). Robin Wright fucking punked Al Pacino’s skinny Italian ass as Rick Roma. Melanie Lynskey redefined the term pussy with her rendering of George Aranow (Alan Arkin). And Maria Bello stole the show with her direct-to-the-audience vaudeville delivery of the scheming Dave Moss (Ed Harris).

As Reitman clarified before the reading began, no rehearsals for this performance took place. The music stands, scripts, signs with the character’s names on them, projections of locations from a movie made in 1992 of a play written in 1983—all served to remind the audience that they were not being asked to actually believe that these were really women characters in the here and now saying things to each other such as, “Are you man enough to take it?” and “A man’s his job and you’re fucked at yours,” and calling each other “faggot” and “stupid fucking cunt.” We were, rather, witnessing a live experiment in what if.

What if the “relentlessly macho” words of Mamet’s characters were spoken by and embodied within women? What if his classic Glengarry Glen Ross could be done in a way that reveals once and for all that the uber-masculine behaviors of Glengarry‘s sales/conmen are driven not by their biological male identities but by a capitalist system that relies on pitting people against one another like so many roosters at a cock fight? What if?

The experiment was a rousing success. In fact, these women pretty much tore the fucking roof off. Though they were using the film script, the presentation—with its signs and music stands—was distinctly theatrical. The presence of the actors in the same space-time as the audience, reacting to our laughter and our discomfort, returned the text to its roots, and the humor of the script resonated far more than it does in the consistently bleak film. None of it was staged, but Carla Gugino, with her model-like frame and wearing the kind of heels that very few people can actually walk in, re-read Baldwin’s “brass balls” speech and made it absolutely believable. Catherine O’Hara elicited more sympathy in her struggle to care for her dying daughter than does Lemmon’s more pitiful rendition in the film. (She was funnier, too, and being funnier than Jack Lemmon is no easy task.) Best of all, the ideological notion of a group of workers toiling under a capitalist “enslavement” and “befuddled by a middle class morality” rang far more true when the workers depicted were actually members of an oppressed group.

Then again, I wonder whether today’s openly small-government, anti-regulation, pro-gun conservative Mamet would write a play so obviously critical of the way the unchecked capitalist impulse towards financial success perverts our personal moralities. Regretfully, the team stopped short of fully committing to the exercise by cutting the language which would have been most difficult to hear spoken by a woman (such as a monologue by Roma [Wright/Pacino] about memories of sexual encounters with women). After all, such experiments, which make no attempt to convince the audience that this is actually happening, must be willing to make people as undeniably uncomfortable with our unquestioned assumptions about sex and gender as possible in order for us to gather enough data to prove or disprove our hypotheses. Plus, I would have loved to hear Wright say her “balls feel like concrete.”

Reitman was unavailable for comment, so I can only speculate as to his intentions in directing the reading, but last year he directed a Live Read of Reservoir Dogs with an all-black cast, indicating a genuine creative and/or social interest in expanding possibilities for women and people of color in Hollywood films. Film Independent is a non-profit that runs such programs as Project Involve, which partners young filmmakers of color with mentors in the business. I hope the series and Film Independent continue to investigate such possibilities and dares to go even more boldly where no women have gone before.

In terms of Mamet, both his supporters and detractors tend to make the mistake of conflating sexist characters with sexist plays, and sexist plays with a sexist person. Though I can’t provide a thumbs up or down on Mamet the Man or everything he has written, I can address some of the difficulties of making those determinations:

  • A play/film containing sexist characters is not automatically a sexist play/film: True.
  • That some of his plays/films are sexist does not automatically make Mamet the person sexist: True.
  • That he has been seen to be loving with his family means Mamet and his plays/films cannot be sexist: False.
  • In that they reveal the shit women have to deal with on a day-to-fucking-day basis, Mamet’s sexist characters actually make his writing feminist: False.
  • That he is open to changing a character that was originally written for a gay man to a heterosexual woman proves that he’s invested in creating diversity in his characters: False.
  • That most of the women characters he has written are femme fatales with toothed vaginas, forever leading men, Siren-like, to their doom: True. In fact, though people regularly call upon Mamet to write more roles for women, the entirely male worlds of Glengarry and American Buffalo actually represent his least problematic work.

The actability of Mamet’s plays make them fascinating to watch and useful for teaching the craft, and the indelible imprint he’s made on American theater and film cannot be ignored. More cross-sex readings (and dare I say, full productions) of his plays could give audience members and theater folks alike the distance from the “gritty reality” of the words in order to think critically and determine the ideology behind those words.

This reading was enough to make me want to look again, but it’s hard for a theater feminist to get past Oleanna. It’s hard for an intellectual to get past Mamet’s propagandistic conservative manifesto The Secret Knowledge. It should be hard for anyone—particularly the Jews he increasingly claims to represent in his pro-Israel advocacy—to get past him comparing feminists at Harvard calling out sexists to Nazis at Dachau. (Seriously. Dachau.) And though I’m finally open to reading it, ironically, my ex-husband took our copy of True or False in the divorce. Seems appropriate, but still. Goddammit.

Cross posted at Ms.

« Previous PageNext Page »