Yearly Archives: 2009

Or, at the Women’s Project

Or, (spelled with the punctuation intact as Or,), the recently-closed first production of the 2009-2010 season at the Women’s Project, is a delightful romp. Based on the life of Aphra Behn, Liz Duffy Adams’s lively, contemporary interpretation is full of highly theatrical devices and whimsical plot turns. The production, directed with fluid energy by Wendy McClellan, boasts three of the most appealing performances I’ve seen all year.

Behn was the English Restoration playwright known for writing bawdy comedies in the style of her 1660 moment, who also had a double life as a spy (code name “Astrea”) for the Empire. She was one of the first women to write publicly for the stage.

In a prologue typical of Restoration comedy, addressed directly to Or,’s audience, actor Kelly Hutchinson stands by a ghost light center stage and speaks to spectators as herself. She describes how the play we’re about to see will straddle different moments in history—from 1660 to 1960 to “now”—and brook utter disregard for binaries like male and female, gay and straight, night and day, and other common terms and ideas typically held in opposition. Hutchinson’s costume mixes historical and modern dress, and her speech, although in verse, is entirely contemporary and colloquial.

After her warm greeting, Hutchinson disappears with the ghost light to reveal a simple set: a 1660s-style writing table and chair down stage right; a multi-purpose ottoman and wardrobe stage left, both of which assume various uses throughout the production; and a requisite double door center stage, through which the two supporting principles (Hutchinson and Gian Murray Gianino—who replaced Andy Paris—both of whom masterfully cycle through multiple roles) come and go in their various guises (and disguises).

Aphra Behn, the lady of the hour, settles in at her desk with familiarity, ease, and a voracious need to write, delighted to be in the chair to which she obviously loves to retire. Played with charm, wit, and a flirtatious intelligence by Maggie Siff (of tv’s Mad Men), Or,’s Behn is a portrait of a woman defined by her work, who’s never happier than when she has a pen in her hand.

Adams’s portrait of the artist as a dedicated woman scribe underlines Behn’s historical status as a forgotten woman playwright recovered by scholars during second wave U.S. feminism in the mid-70s and 80s. Behn’s play, The Rover, in fact, has been parsed by feminist performance scholars like Elin Diamond for the ways in which it both hews to and pushes against the conventions of the form. In Or, Behn is a firecracker, sexually adventurous and open, confined to her boudoir by a society that can’t quite fathom the conjunction of “woman” and “writer,” terms usually kept apart by the conjunction that names the play.

Behn’s magnetism draws people to her. In Or, she’s approached to satisfy the emotional and physical whims of both King Charles II, who visits her at first disguised, to suggest a liaison, and then by Nell Gwynne, the actor known for her wit and style as an performer on the Restoration stage, as well as for her role as mistress to the King. Adams fancies Gwynne as a happily bisexual woman who makes love to Behn and later shares her bed with the King, whom Behn offers her with the magnanimity of someone who can take or leave the mechanics of heterosexual sex.

The trio’s polymorphously perverse ménage a trios is set, in the end, against the psychedelic backdrop of a scrim painted like a Peter Max poster, with a rich splash of primary and pastel colors drawn in the rounded cartoon-style hand of the 1960s black-light posters under which people listened to Pink Floyd and smoked weed.

The characters speak in a wonderful mash-up of idioms from 1660s blank verse, to 1960s colloquialisms, to contemporary references to, for example, a faltering economy, while their clothing quotes the style and cut of Restoration cloth. The King first presents himself to Behn as a kind of bandit, wearing a black velvet half-mask through which his eyes roll and roam with comic precision. His black cape and velveteen rounded hat make him appear aristocratic against Behn’s simple white dress, with its gathered bodice and soft folds. Nell Gwynne, on the other hand, wears functional breeches and a loose white shirt, the flowing costume of a free-spirited artist comfortable with her body from within and without, watching herself as she is accustomed to being watched by others.

Part of the fun of Or, is how quickly these characters hook up (as their liaisons would now be called). After quick exchanges of pleasantries, Charles and Gwynne both profess their love for and attraction to Behn, who requites both of them with easy amusement. Both her suitors kiss her, caress her, and hold her, attention to which she submits until her desk and her quill pen call her back to her work. In fact, Behn demonstrations through her actions that her work holds more allure than sex.

Invited through the door in the upstage center of the set to come to bed with either partner, Behn is willing, but not until she scribbles one more line or two on her sheaf of parchment paper. Her suitors wait, happily. In this idyllic world, there’s no end to desire and lust, but it’s matter-of-fact rather than urgent, and always concedes to Behn’s need to work. Or, as a result, becomes a play about a woman with agency, who writes her life as she lives it (and likewise lives what she writes).

The two supporting actors rotate through multiple roles in short order, providing much of the production’s comedy. Hutchinson primarily plays Gwynne, but also appears as Maria, the trusty and crusty servant, for which Hutchinson adopts a lower-class accent and a stooped posture to deliver the old woman’s pungent observations. Gianino, along with his role as Charles, plays Behn’s ne’er-do-well former consort, William, who arrives at her chambers intent on bilking her of whatever funds to which he can lay claim. Because he has to hide his presence, Will spends a lot of time popping in and out of the wardrobe, which gives Gianino time to make the quick changes that allow the actor to reappear almost instantly on the other side of the stage as the King. Only the occasionally awry hairpiece indicates the arduous transitions made backstage

Gianino accomplishes the character transformations in a style made famous by Charles Ludlam and his Ridiculous Theatre, comic methods for multiple role-playing popularized in his much-produced The Mystery of Irma Vep. A fake arm in the wardrobe, for instance, makes it seem as though William is still in there as Charles woos Behn by her desk. Gianino also offers a funny turn as a theatre-company-owning dowager, Lady Davenant, wearing a towering wig and a complicated, layered pink dress that can’t quite disguise his height or his manly mass. Gianino’s quite game to distinguish among his characters’ genders and sexual overtones, so that each one he plays maintains their own kind of dignity, even as the costume of the other peaks out from beneath the hem of his dress.

The 90-minute Or, is an evening of good fun written with such wit and charm and played with such good humor and good faith that the production is irresistible. As the lovers form themselves into a happy ménage-a-trois, the stage fills with good will and the attractions of relationships built on fellowship and mutual attraction. Despite what we know of the 1960s sexual revolution, in which men were much more liberated by revolving partners and sexual licentiousness than women, in Adams’s version, Behn is the fulcrum of the trio, and the women are full of agency, desire, choice, and affection, and as sexually and emotionally fulfilled as the men.

McClellan moves the production along with ease and verve, so that although the action plays out on one simple set, it seems as though the characters are always moving along, that something momentous is always happening. Her direction exemplifies the play’s overlapping time frames—she moves us across time and space imaginatively and effortlessly, keeping the energy and spirits high. One moment, we seem squarely in the 1660s; in the next, Janis Joplin’s electric wail covers a scene break, and we’re recalled to the 1960s. The music, in fact, gilds the production with nostalgia and pleasure.

Siff gives a lovely, specific and grounded performance as Behn. She winks at the audience, bringing us along with the play’s jokes and fun. She scribbles happily at her work, bent over her desk with as much pleasure as she derives from her suitors’ kisses.All three performers, directed by McClellan with perfect pace, pitch, and possession, look like they’re having a great deal of infectious fun. The three share their happy kisses, forming the gestus of love without that dread conjunction “or.”

In its happy time-confusing world of 1660/1960/now that Duffy Adams creates with such pleasure, Or, is a play that’s ultimately about both/and.

The Feminist Spectator

The Good Wife

CBS’s new prime-time series showcases the considerable talents of Julianna Margulies, who stars as Alicia Florrick, wife of a Chicago District Attorney who’s been jailed on corruption charges for which he might or might not be framed, and for consorting with a prostitute, evidence of which is plastered all over the local news.Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), sits in jail trying to work the angles to which he had access on the outside, while his beleaguered and beautiful wife returns to work as a lawyer in a firm run by one of her old school mates, Will Garvin (Josh Charles), and his haughty and hard partner/nemesis, Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski).

In The Good Wife’s conceit, Alicia’s work as an attorney excels because of her unusual ability to empathize with people, and because of her sharp intelligence and steely resolve, all softened by a feminine, struggling-not-to-appear-hurt-and-damaged exterior. She also has an intuitive ability to think out of the box, often sensing that a case the other lawyers want to reject as unwinnable can actually be defended successfully. In that regard, The Good Wife trades on its star’s/character’s feminine wiles, but in other ways, the show’s writers let Alicia be much more than the superficially and stereotypically good wife/mother/woman, sometimes raising pertinent questions about just what constitutes “good.”

Margulies, who hasn’t performed in a prime-time series since her star-making turn onER back in the day, is wonderful in the title role on The Good Wife. Alicia is a soft-spoken woman; most of Margulies’s acting is non-verbal. She reacts with a look, a subtle raise of her eyebrows or narrowing of her eyelids; emotion registers on her face almost imperceptibly. She’s a woman nearing middle-age, who’s been publicly humiliated by her husband’s malfeasance, and even more, by his dalliance with the prostitute, which is highly publicized in tandem with his conviction.

Instead of proceeding chronologically, the series establishes the barest bones of its back-story and thrusts Alicia into the present, where she’s learning how to be a single mother with two sullen and upset teenaged children, tended to by her husband’s mother, a tight-lipped upper-crust woman who disapproves of Alicia’s job and who’s loyal to her son at all costs. While Alicia debates what she thinks is true or not, her mother-in-law asserts her own version of her son’s story, and judges Alicia for her unwillingness to unquestioningly stand by her man.

Digital images of Peter and his prostitute seem easily available on the internet and television. Even Alicia’s kids easily find evidence and—confused and betrayed—watch video of their father enjoying his soft-porn dalliances. Alicia can’t bring herself to watch the whole scene, although she obsessively returns to various images of her husband in flagrante delicto, and then literally covers her eyes as the grainy images play. The series keeps her very public humiliation in the forefront of the story, so that mid-way through its first season, Alicia still hasn’t watched the whole scene.

Her husband’s betrayal, given his status on the Chicago political scene where the series plays out, thrusts Alicia into a kind of high visibility public sphere to which she’s clearly unaccustomed. Watching her navigate and find her own strength and dignity in the face of low-brow and prurient public mud-slinging is one of the show’s many pleasures. Alicia Florrick is a character to emulate—she’s moral but flexible, smart but sexy, creative but ethical. She gets the job done in the best way possible and her achievements, by each episode’s end, are celebrated and admired.

A basic pattern repeats week-to-week. Alicia’s firm lands a complicated case, in which underdog seems poised to be vanquished. Her superiors put Alicia in charge, often to test her, as the firm has only one spot open for a junior partner, and she’s required to compete with Cary (Matt Czuchry) a hungry, ambitious young white boy lawyer whose slick confidence contrasts nicely with Alicia’s ambivalent, tentative approach to her return to the rigors of lawyering. Because she’s not a conventional legal shark, Alicia connects with defendants more personally. They trust her and tell her things, or she understands them intuitively in ways that let her read the truth of their situations.Alicia’s high visibility in the press attracts clients to the firm; they request that she represent them because they know her own plight will make her effective defending their own.

Bemused but willing, Alicia steps up each week, and usually wins her cases through some unusual observation or creative choice about how to structure the defense. She often wins the grudging admiration of Baranski ‘s character, Diane, who clearly favors Alicia’s competition, Cary, for junior partner (although in a recent episode, she softens toward her after Alicia comes to her for advice and lets Diane prove that she’s ethical after all).

Will, on the other hand, tends a bit of a flame for Alicia, and remains staunchly supportive of her return to legal practice. The growing sexual tension between them gives the series the de rigueur romantic possibility in which to ground its weekly stories of the little guy vanquishing corporate wrong-doings or government greed. But to its writers’ credit, The Good Wife isn’t rushing Will and Alicia into an affair, but lets them circle one another cautiously, advancing and retreating multiple times in each episode.

In many ways, Alicia finds herself in a world not of her own making; it’s not clear she would be working if her husband weren’t in jail. But her very reluctance to fully embrace the world in which she’s now excelling makes her an appealing character.She’s exactly not one of those bracing, aggressive female assistant district attorneys who’ve cycled through each of the Law and Order series. She’s a woman with an unraveling, precarious domestic life; a now-cautious relationship with her incarcerated husband; a mother-in-law on whom she’s forced to depend, even though the two women don’t like one another very much; and two teenage children whose reactions to their father’s betrayal she also needs to supervise and manage.

Alicia’s reluctant success illustrates the pull of the professional for upper-middle-class women who’ve for one reason or another opted to stay home (and had the financial means to do so). I’m hoping that over the course of the series, The Good Wife won’t trade in tired tropes about women “having it all,” but will instead use its main character’s complexity to illustrate the contradictions and conflicts in how American society—even in the second decade of the 21st century—judges women who are wives, mothers, and professionals making their way in the world.

Instead of fashioning the character as a heroine who juggles her conflicting tasks and situations with obvious élan, Alicia’s flaws and contradictions and tentative choices make her much more interesting. She has deeply ambivalent feelings about her charismatic husband, whom she visits in his minimum security prison and with whom she gradually rebuilds a very tenuous kind of trust. Peter offers her information from his various contacts that can be helpful to her cases; he seems to be the hub of a very fast wheel with multiple overlapping spokes. He’s eager to make amends for his bad behavior, but Alicia resists the information he tries to feed her, at the same time gradually understanding the depth of complex political systems of favors and pay-backs in which he’s made his career, and in which she now finds herself embroiled.

Ironically, from his rather cushy incarceration, Peter becomes Alicia’s mentor. In spite of her resentment and rage at his betrayal, she knows he can teach her things about how to succeed with the cases she builds. On the other hand, because of his notoriety, she can’t enter a courtroom anonymously; every judge she faces and every prosecuting attorney she battles knows her history. They all look at her through their own distaste for her husband, their desire for vengeance, or their prurient interest in how she’s holding up under such public humiliation. That Alicia insists she be treated as her own person, and unfailingly rejects everyone’s presumptions, is part of the show’s feminist appeal.

The writers temper Alicia’s strength and determination with an appealing fragility that she tries to hide, knowing that it won’t get her far in her law firm’s shark-pool.Yet that very humanity makes her effective as a litigator. She treats her clients like real people, and invariably learns information that her more hard-boiled colleagues miss.

Her partner in each escapade is Kalinda (the terrific Archie Panjabi), the private detective on retainer to the firm who is wry and skeptical and knows just how to extract useful information. Kalinda provides a counterpart to Alicia’s more insistently straightforward, ethical attorney. Their tentative friendship, which develops over the first season into a fierce loyalty, lets The Good Wife explore a relationship between female colleagues often foreclosed by more conventional law and order series.

Who wouldn’t have wanted to see Alex, the DA, and Olivia Benson, the detective, onLaw and Order: Special Victims Unit spend more face time (especially after Stephanie March’s electric exit from the show several seasons ago, in a staged murder that found Benson obviously caring for and mourning the colleague she believed dead)? Who wouldn’t have wanted to see the revolving door of female actors/characters who’ve played Sam Waterson’s side-kick on the original Law and Order actually have female friends and colleagues, instead of the witchy female judges that more often berated them for perceived ineptitude and left them hanging in a world of unsympathetic men?

What a surprise it was when Serena Southerlyn (Elizabeth Rohm), dismissed from her job (and Rohm from her recurring role), worried that she had been discriminated against because she was a lesbian. Her private life hadn’t once been written into her role.

As a result, seeing Alicia and Kalinda develop a mutually beneficial professional relationship that’s enhanced by their grudging personal respect sets a new benchmark for female friendships on television dramas. Baranski’s Diane, on the other hand, has for most of the first season served as the resident ball-breaking shrew, in contrast to whom Josh Charles’s Will seems positively feminine and empathetic. That Will and Alicia are old school chums threatens Diane, whose cutthroat ethos doesn’t trust that Will can keep his feelings for Alicia disentangled from the firm’s high-stakes business.

On the other hand, Cary, the young white male tiger who the partners have established as Alicia’s man to beat for a permanent spot in the firm, has grown over the first season from a single-minded competitor to a more sympathetic colleague who can’t help but admire Alicia’s grit. To the writers’ credit, Cary and Alicia’s initial competition has resolved into a partnership in which they, too, help one another more often than not. That the unlikely pair has developed a grudging respect keeps The Good Wife from relying on gender- and age-based stereotypes about effective (at least on tv) lawyering.

Diane got her own moment of more complex character-based drama on an episode toward the end of the first season, which guest starred Kate Burton as a female judge who’s made her own political compromises to maintain her power and position.When Burton’s character and her minions approach Diane about running for a judgeship, Baranski plays Diane as flattered and pleased, taken in by the opprobrium of a woman senior to herself.

But in a parallel plot, Alicia uncovers evidence of corruption in another judge, who happens to be Will’s friend, and takes her quandary to Diane. When Diane shows her more ethical side, and refuses to take Alicia off the case as Burton’s character requests, Diane is shown the door by the local political machine that wanted to place her on the bench. The episode gave Baranski a chance to show Diane with more depth and thoughtfulness than usual, since she’s more often than not posing in power suits that make her look like a scowling dominatrix.

Margulies’s long-suffering affect, honed to perfection all those years on ER, is shaded here with more emotional nuance, which makes the character and Margulies’s acting much more interesting. Alicia, unlike Nurse Carol, has an ever-strengthening back bone. The more independent she’s forced to be, the stronger she becomes. Although the complexities of her single-motherhood are mitigated by her very upper-class status and her mother-in-law’s willingness to help (however much friction that causes Alicia and her children), she’s still a middle-aged (albeit gorgeous) woman finding her way in a professional world, and refusing to give up her humanity to succeed.

The Good Wife is one of the year’s most successful new series, nominated for several Golden Globe Awards and picked up for another season. If other networks develop clones, perhaps more roles will be written for middle-aged women who aren’t just mothers or mistresses, but who are professionals with complex emotional back-stories and complicated choices that make them unpredictable and compelling (see, for only one example, Edie Falco’s title character on Nurse Jackie). Here’s hoping.

The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot.


Lee Daniels’ film Precious, based on the novel Push, by Sapphire, is by turns an exhausting and exhilarating mix of utter brutality and exemplary compassion. The whole film is marked by such binaries—Gabourey Sidibe, for instance, who plays the title character, sometimes appears so opaque that her features seem like a painting, frozen in a removed, indecipherable mask of a scowl. At other times, as Precious’s journey moves forward into what one can only hope will be a better future, that stolid countenance begins to crack, as Precious starts to trust people enough to let her emotions register more readily.

This indie film has already garnered a wealth of attention, including a New York Times Magazine cover story on the director and his star, and superlative reviews. I wonder if part of this hoopla signals the eternal voyeurism of a dominant culture that in some prurient way revels in the depravations of the marginal and much less privileged. Scenes of Precious’s home life with her mother, Mary (played by the comedienne Mo’Nique, whose role here couldn’t be farther from humor), reveal a viciousness rarely seen on screen, as routine as it most likely is in some people’s lives. Mary survives on welfare checks that let her hole up in her cave-likeHarlem apartment like a hibernating bear. She does nothing but smoke, drink, and watch television day in and day out, while her anger about her daughter smolders and too often ignites.

Precious, we quickly learn, is now pregnant with her second child by her own father. Director Daniels quickly intercuts scenes of incestuous rape in flash-backs whose fragmented images communicate the older man’s intensity, strength, and refusal to take no for an answer. He throws his daughter violently onto the bed and mounts her, whispering meaningless assertions of love while he sinks deeper into his own desire. In one scene, Mary passes the bedroom door as her boyfriend rapes her daughter, witnessing but not intervening. She perverts her complicity with Precious’s degradation into jealousy that her own man would want Precious instead.

Mary’s bitterness curdles into a sour, palpable antipathy that emanates from the screen like a foul sulphurous cloud. She scowls at her daughter’s back while Precious cooks their dinner, ordering the young girl to serve her as though Precious were a menial and Mary royalty. On impulse, her anger gathers and she lashes out, throwing heavy objects at Precious’s head and viciously sweeping plates onto the floor.

Her sixteen-year-old daughter, adept at ducking and at self-preservation, absorbs with unemotional resolve the blows and the incessant insults about her weight and her stupidity that Mary metes out. Watching those horrific scenes, it’s clear why the young girl’s dark black moon-shaped face, its features crowded together by flesh, has cultivated a mask of indifference. Underneath what looks like passivity, her determination gathers and her instinct for self-protection strengthens.

A sympathetic, overworked white principal in her public school tells Precious she can no longer be a student because of her pregnancy. But the woman refers her to an “alternative school” that enrolls girls in complicated situations, and Precious doggedly pursues the lead, despite her mother’s withering scorn. She finds the school’s offices and puts her fate in the hands of a world-weary African American receptionist who registers Precious and moves her into the system that will ultimately redeem her.

To Daniels’ credit, the road to Precious’s salvation isn’t a foregone conclusion. The movie doesn’t reassure the spectator with the music cues that usually tell us there’s hope, or with predictable plot turns that allow us to follow the story comfortably, reassured that everything will work out in the end. The narrative, in fact, turns unpredictably, and every new character offers the potential to move Precious onto a different branch of her life’s path. Her new teacher—a beautiful, indeterminately ethnic, light-coffee-colored young woman named Blu Rain (Paula Patton)—offers Precious a version of tough love that she’s never felt before, and it takes Precious time to trust that her teacher’s overtures have no ulterior motive.

The other young women in her class are underprivileged but clearly haven’t experienced Precious’s level of degradation. One is a Jamaican immigrant; another is a Latina recovering drug addict; another is, presumably, an African American soft butch lesbian with a scar on her face; and another is an African American would-be fashion model whose own version of hope is so exaggerated and overblown that she manages to infect the other women with her refusal to be browbeaten into defeat. In this company, Precious feels her way, cautiously coming to believe in the safety and care she begins to feel.

Watching Sidibe break Precious open—to love, to literacy, to self-confidence—is one of the most astonishing, moving experiences I’ve ever had during a film. Sidibe handles her implicit empathy with her character’s impossible plight with command and grace, leading us carefully through Precious’s decisions and emotions so that spectators can understand her from the inside out. She privileges us with a view into the soul of a young woman whose size and countenance seems to refuse a common humanity, and lets us see Precious choose to throw in her lot with the rest by choosing to free herself from the hell of her home.

Although Precious knows she’s pregnant, her size masks how far along she is, so her unexpected labor pains make her teachers fearful enough to call an ambulance. At the hospital, where she delivers a healthy baby boy, Lenny Kravitz plays compassionate Nurse John, a man feminized by his profession and by his commitment to organic food, by his warm, level interactions, and by his quiet kind of care. His ministrations affect Precious; when he kisses her good-bye on her forehead, it’s clear she’s rarely experienced simple expressions of kindness or affection. Her school friends crowd her hospital room, flirting with Kravitz and behaving like the teenaged girls they actually are, instead of the jaded women their lives typically force them to perform.

Precious’s first baby by her father has Down syndrome and has been banished, by Mary, to live with Mary’s mother. Mary, who can’t stand the sight of her, calls the baby “Mongo,” short for “Mongoloid.” The sweet girl is friendly and affectionate, cheerful and placid.When Mary’s mother, wary and suspicious of her own daughter, brings the little girl to their Harlem apartment in anticipation of a city social worker’s visit, the three-year-old’s non-discriminating, innocent affect throws into even sharper relief the cruelty in which Precious lives.

Mary wears a wig and dresses up for the occasion, holding the baby on her lap while the clueless social worker spends five minutes in the apartment. When the official leaves, Mary rips off her wig and thrusts the baby out of her arms, her disgust and revulsion for her own family instantly reappearing in her face. But Precious loves her child, and in the simple, occasional narrative voice-overs in which she editorializes on her situation or shares her dreams, the girl admits that she’s determined that Mongo will live with her.

The narration, in fact, is used sparingly, as it provides the only evidence that Precious has a soul determined to survive despite her situation. To Daniels’ credit, he doesn’t rely on his source material for these voice-overs in a heavy-handed way; the film is less literary than it is a stunning visual record of inarticulate fear, longing, and hope, all recorded in the smallest movements of a facial muscle or the sheen of an eye.

[Spoiler alert.]

In one of the film’s most affecting scenes—and there are many—Mariah Carey, as Precious’s sympathetic new case worker, Ms. Weiss, the cruel Mary, and the wary Precious sit together in Ms. Weiss’s small cubicle, as Mary tries to persuade Precious to come home. Mo’Nique’s devastating performance in this scene shows Mary swinging frantically among her conflicting emotions: denial at the damage that’s been wrought on her daughter by Mary’s own boyfriend; anger that Precious has left her to fend for herself, so clearly was Mary dependent on the girl’s labor; fear at being left alone; and fury, still, that her man found her daughter—in her own perverse interpretation of his actions—more sexually desirable than he found her.

All three women sit in the claustrophobic public space, tears running down their cheeks, each crying for their own reasons. Ms. Weiss’s seem to be tears of disbelief, fury, and despair that people like Mary can sink so far into such degradation, and that she can do so little to help. Precious cries because she realizes her mother can never redeem herself, that she’ll never be more than a helpless batterer to whom Precious can never return. And Mary cries because she realizes at some point in her self-serving narrative that she’s not going to win this round; she’s going to walk away empty-handed, because try as she might, she can’t present herself as anything but the monster she is.

In a last ditch attempt to win Precious back, Mary disappears into the agency’s anteroom and returns with Mongo, Precious’s little daughter. Her mother thrusts the baby into Precious’s arms, and Precious finds her resolve. She tells Ms. Weiss that much as she appreciates what she’s done for her, and as much as Precious admits she likes Ms. Weiss (an admission of some consequence for such an emotionally guarded young girl), “you can’t handle me.” Standing to go, she tells Mary that she will never ever see her again. With Mongo’s hand in hers and her little boy on her shoulder, Precious leaves the agency, moving into a crowd of New Yorkers with gritty determination and utter faith in her ability, now, to survive.

Relating the plot makes Precious sound like a television-movie-of-the-week, but the film far exceeds that the stereotype. Daniels intercuts scenes of fantasy with Precious’s reality, especially when the brutality gets extreme and she needs to disassociate. In her parallel universe, she’s got a light-skinned boyfriend on her arm, and she swans through a celebrity’s life, enjoying the literal and figurative spotlight. She dances on a pedestal on a stage, watched by a theatre full of admiring fans; she works a line of screaming acolytes, signing autographs and posing for pictures; she wears satiny long dresses and her hair styled, her make-up sophisticated, a far cry from the worn-out t-shirts and jeans that compose her daily wardrobe.

Daniels films these fantasy sequences as though they’re in Technicolor, with a flat, brassy, two-dimensional color scheme and quick edits that keep the scenes fragmented and fantastical. The film never asks the spectator to reconcile these two versions of its central character. Daniels suggests these two different young women exist side-by-side in Precious’s psyche as near mirror images of one another.

In her real life, Precious is invisible; even Oprah Winfrey, who, with Tyler Perry, is one of the film’s producers, admitted that too often, she didn’t “see” girls like Precious, and vows never to make that mistake again. In the girl’s fantasies, she’s the center of adoring attention, fawned on by fans and doted on by her boyfriend, who always stands behind her, nuzzling her ear and respecting her power. Precious doesn’t really want celebrity, Daniels seems to suggest, but it’s the only image she can hang on to that represents to her what it means to be fully seen, heard, and loved.

Precious’s teachers and advocates truly do love her, as do her fellow students and Nurse John, who takes her under his wing at the hospital. When Precious wins an achievement in literacy award, her school throws a party to which all her newfound friends come.A kinship structure has grown up around Precious, and she’s buoyed and surprised by its warmth. Along with Ms. Weiss, her case worker at the agency, her teacher at the alternative school, Ms. Rain, has been quite affected by Precious. After her son is born, when it’s clear the young girl can’t return to her mother, Ms. Rain takes her home until more permanent temporary housing can be found for Precious and the baby. Ms. Rain lives in a Harlem brownstone with sophisticated ethnic appointments, including a prominently displayed poster of Ntozake Shange’s play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enough, which graces Precious with its symbolic weight during her visit.

Ms. Rain, as it happens, is a lesbian, and she and her lovely, warm partner regale Precious with stories that fade into a mélange of happy voices as Precious wonders, in her voiceover, at being taken in by “homos.” As the two women drink wine, touch one another lightly and affectionately, and coo over the little baby, Precious looks on in wonderment, as though this is the first time she’s been around people who actually love one another. The moment is moving and revealing, as it’s clear Precious has been influenced by her mother’s prejudices, but finds a grace and generosity of self that quickly helps her reject what she’s learned and embrace the possibility of difference, of kindness, and of love.

The film’s heroes and heroines—like Ms. Rain and her partner and Nurse John—are all light-skinned, complicating the politics of race in the film. In one scene, after Precious has come to trust Ms. Weiss, the case worker (Carey), she asks the woman “what color” she is. She can’t quite read her ethnicity, which, if her name is any indication, is Jewish. Precious is unsophisticated, but she sees something in this woman that reads as “not white” to her, even if it’s just a projection because Mrs. Weiss seems to empathize so strongly with her difference.

I can’t recall a film that’s illustrated such brutality and such compassion in nearly the same breadth. Nor can I recall a film in which the central character has been as complex and compelling as Precious. Watching Precious feels like witnessing a creative virtuosity—the director’s and each of the actors’—that’s tuned into something so real and somehow true, so horrible and somehow redemptive, that you can’t look away. And that, it seems, is the film’s plea: that we see girls like Precious, instead of seeing through them or refusing to look at all.

The Feminist Spectator

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Circle Mirror Transformation

Annie Baker’s play, in a wonderful production directed by Sam Gold at Playwrights Horizons, takes place in the familiar, anonymous sterility of an all-purpose room at a community center, the kind of room that so often doubles as a crucible for community theatre and other arts. Exercise equipment clutters the floor, alongside the detritus of other objects useful for other kinds of groups. All become extraneous to the do-it-yourself creativity and faux self-help spiritualism-cum-acting lessons offered by the well-meant but self-involved would-be theatre guru, Marty.

As the oblivious leader of the four-member class, the middle-aged woman (played with a perfect balance of empathy and tone-deaf self-involvement by Deirdre O’Connell) tries to inspire her tiny band of followers to explore their inner psychology as a prerequisite to emotionally honest acting. But as Lauren (Tracee Chimo), the socially maladroit but emotionally acute teenager who’s the youngest person in the mismatched group of players notes plaintively, it’s not at all clear how any of this is going to help anyone learn how to be an actor.

Still, for Marty, the self-exploration and pseudo-psychologizing that are her stock in trade provide their own reward. It’s not at all clear that Marty has ever acted professionally; she’s one of those so-called artists who hang out a shingle on the basis of a happy fantasy rather than real life experience. Clearly, she’s cajoled her husband, James (Peter Friedman), to be part of the group, and he tries his best to go with the flow until the psychobabble gets the better of him and he takes the trust exercises a bit too far.

Schultz, Marty’s other male student, is a hapless divorcee with pent-up anger issues.Schultz is still not over the fact that his wife has left him, but he falls hard for Theresa, the supposedly “real” actor who’s moved to this remote hamlet of Shirley, Vermont, to escape her own relationship issues, as well as her own failed career. She’s just broken up with her boyfriend, an older man who controlled her jealously, a rather masochistic involvement that Theresa seems to have enjoyed more than she’s willing to admit.

Marty hurls herself into grooming this ragtag group, putting them through the ridiculous emotional recall, storytelling, and trust exercises familiar to any one who’s taken a community acting class at their local high school or playhouse. She asks the students to interview one another and then perform the narratives they collect, stories that Baker uses to structure the play’s cumulative revelations. Telling personal stories borrowed from their partners in a first-person form provides a rather sweet, halting demonstration of how the students get to know one another.

Since it’s impossible for them to perform one another without the barest hint of editorializing, we come to know the characters through how they describe and observe one another’s flaws and discrepancies during their interviews. As the six weeks of the class tick by, announced by slides projected between each scene, the characters’ back-stories are filled in a bit more, in tales that the students eventually use against one another as the trust exercises back-fire.

Each of the characters becomes likable in their own slightly askew way, as Baker gradually reveals their humor, their pain, and their sorrow. Several times, they lie on their backs on the studio floor trying to count collectively but consecutively to ten without stepping on one another’s numbers. The exercise is meant to foster trust and good listening skills. That the small ensemble can’t actually get to ten until near the play’s end marks both their failure and, at last, the ways in which they have indeed grown closer, more attune to one another’s presences and habits, their desires and frustrations.

O’Connell, as Marty, does an excellent job creating the pseudo-sincere care and attention of the not very talented acting teacher. She carefully watches each improvised moment she sets up among her pupils, positioning herself for optimal observation in a contrived, “artistic” pose, never explaining why she’s putting them through these emotional paces and never articulating what exactly they’ve done well or poorly. That each of the students simply follows her lead, rarely questioning her motives or their acting education, rings too true. I could hear who among my fellow spectators had taken such a class by the knowing laughter we shared at those familiar moments.

Marty’s husband, James, tries hard to be supportive of his flaky artistic wife. Marty shares the story of their meeting, a romantic moment at a friend’s wedding that depends on the kind of kismet in which only an aging hippy bohemian could continue to invest. But it becomes clear over the course of the play that their happiness is frayed, the romance fading. Their daughter, Erin, has stopped speaking to her father because Marty revealed to her a meaningless indiscretion James committed during his first marriage. James is devastated by his daughter’s silence and her sudden allegiance with Marty against him.

Friedman conveys James’s perplexed confusion over these sudden turns in his life, finding emotional candor in a character without a whole lot to say. James’s vulnerability makes him prey to the sultry charms of Theresa, the failed New York actress who’s here in the middle of nowhere to heal her own emotional wounds, and winds up seducing both men (and the teenaged Lauren) with her comfort in her body and her apparently open, if facile, vulnerability.

The versatile Reed Birney (whose raw performance in Blasted at Soho Rep was one of last season’s best) is excellent here as the wounded Schultz, who quickly falls in love with Theresa and is just as quickly and violently devastated when their brief affair doesn’t last. His need is palpable, even before clueless Marty makes the unsuccessful couple act out a scene in which his need becomes his only dialogue. Birney plays Schultz’s mercurial mood swings convincingly; even his sudden, menacing aggression seems justified when his rage boils up out of nowhere in the midst of his “objective” exercise with Theresa.

The play’s humor keeps it entertaining and holds at bay what could be more maudlin moments. As the baleful Lauren, Chimo is superb at physical humor; her expressions, as she reacts to the sometimes peculiar interactions of the adults, are priceless. Chimo can raise an eyebrow, widen her eyes, clench her fists, or raise her shoulders and communicate an entire paragraph of response to the absurdities of what she sees.When in the penultimate scene Marty asks her students to write down, distribute anonymously, and then read out loud something about themselves that they’ve never told another soul, it’s obviously Lauren’s slip of paper that says she secretly believes she’s smarter than everybody else in the world.

Even though she’s been an awkward, comically withdrawn presence through much of the play, that personal secret is clearly true. Lauren knows that her parents aren’t happy; knows that Marty and James’s marriage is headed for its end; sees through Theresa’s seductions while she’s also attracted to them; and is the only character in the play who expresses well-founded doubt that Marty’s ministrations are really going to make them better actors.

The shared secrets—meant to open the students emotionally and bind them psychologically—also reveal (if the characters are telling the truth) that Schultz has a secret addiction to internet porn; that James is in love with Theresa; and that Marty thinks she was molested by her father. These carefully held truths, when shared, seem at once virtuous and pathetic, and set in motion the play’s final bittersweet revelations.

As the orchestrator of what become emotionally acute confessions, Marty is as devastated as the others at what she hears. But she persists, like the soulful artist she believes herself to be, and ends the six-week class by asking Lauren and Schultz to act out one final improvisation, in which they meet one another 10 years later and share news of their lives.

The scene is both hilarious and poignant, as Schultz takes the opportunity to say out loud how Theresa “messed with my mind,” and for Lauren to predict that Marty and James will divorce, along with her parents. While Schultz asks the probing questions, playwright Baker clarifies that it’s Lauren who’s been prescient and wise all along, as she sees clearly into their collective futures.

Lauren enrolled in the class because she wants to be an actress, but realizes as she improvises her view of the future that she’ll be better off as a veterinarian, and sees herself 10 years out happily mated with a boyfriend in the same field. She’s kept in touch with Marty, who it turns out really does care for the odd young woman, predicting that at least one of the relationships so cavalierly dissected by the acting class has been established “for real” and will last. That final moment is both sad and hopeful, as Lauren’s improvised vision brings each character to a rueful but useful understanding of who they really are.

Circle Mirror Transformation is a lovely evening of theatre: fun and funny, smart and knowing, and hugely generous about the imperfect characters Baker portrays so simply and clearly. The play might not change your life, but like the acting class Marty wants so much to offer, it does offer insights into what our lives are and might be about, and demonstrates that the artistic impulse to see something about the human condition really can be felt, even in those tired, empty, all purpose rooms.

The production’s run has been extended to November 21.

The Feminist Spectator

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Superior Donuts

I wasn’t a fan of Tracy Letts’s popular, Tony Award-winning August: Osage County, and his sophomore Broadway outing, Superior Donuts, has both more and less to offer. Crispy directed by Tina Landau, acted with empathy and precision, and designed with evocative realism (down to the chewing gum pressed underneath the donut shop tables and counter), the play is a squarely conventional story told without much theatrical innovation. Letts’s women characters aren’t the shrewish matriarchs of Osage, but neither are they three-dimensional people with the emotional heft and attractions of the two leading men.

Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael McKean), who owns the donut shop in which the play takes place, arrives one morning which should be like any of the many others he’s spent in the place over his 50+ years to find the glass front door shattered and “PUSSY” written in dripping red paint across the wall behind the counter. Although the beat police who frequent Superior Donuts are on the scene even before Arthur, it becomes quickly clear that the crime has been perpetrated by a disgruntled former employee whom we never see. Instead, in the lightly comic banter that establishes both character and plot, the break-in provides the occasion for defining the racial politics of the neighborhood.

At this moment, apparently Russians, Polish people, and African Americans vie for social dominance in Chicago’s Uptown. Max Tarasov (Yasen Peyankov), the brusque, entrepreneurial, heavily accented middle-age Russian man who aggressively bids to buy the donut shop, automatically suspects the “black hoodlums” he sees as the root of the neighborhood’s decline. With each racial slur he pronounces in his comically mistaken syntax, he adds, “You should excuse the expression,” so that he won’t offend Officer James Bailey (James Vincent Meredith), the African American patrolman who examines the scene with his partner, Officer Randy Osteeen (Kate Buddeke). Bailey’s eye-rolls become increasingly pronounced as Max’s diatribe intensifies, until finally, he’s required to intimidate Max physically to get him to stop talking.

Their exchanges are funny in a pat, liberal, “isn’t race a bitch?” sort of way. But Max’s suspicions about the neighborhood’s “obvious,” “natural” criminals is allowed to stand, even when Letts establishes that the (presumably white) ex-employee broke down Arthur’s door and slurred his name. Max finally leaves, and James mutters something about Russians and Polish people being what’s wrong with the neighborhood. The supposedly affectionate tit-for-tat racism is supposed to defuse any lingering ill-will. But instead, that opening exchange actually haunts the story, as Arthur cautiously establishes a relationship with Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill), a young African American man who turns up looking for a job.

Arthur is an aging Hippy who’s stuck in the rut of making and selling donuts out of a shop his father founded a generation before him. In stilted monologues lit only by a strangely out of place white follow spot, Arthur periodically tells the audience about his life to date: his divorce, necessitated by Arthur’s inability to communicate emotionally or to shake off his taciturn nature; the loss of his daughter in the bargain, who drives off with his wife at 13-years-of-age and whom Arthur still hasn’t seen six years later; and his failure to meet his father’s expectations of what it means to be a man, since when he’s drafted, Arthur dodged his patriotic duty by leaving for Canada instead of serving his country as his father expected.

A generous reading would find Superior Donuts a warm, wistful, and wry investigation into white liberal masculinity, when the ideals of the 60s have long given way to new, less noble values. Arthur still wears Grateful Dead t-shirts, for which Franco teases him mercilessly, and his hair is pulled back a long gray pony-tail that doesn’t flatter his face or his figure (Franco quips that pony tails are for little girls and ponies). He’s immobilized in his life, unable to move forward or back, caught by the spotlight’s white glare in old family narratives that he can’t fix or escape.

Franco’s appearance begins to shake up Arthur’s hopeless, frozen complacency. Played by Hill with deft comic timing, fresh emotional openness, and a physical ease that fills the stage with the bounce of his spirit, Franco diagnoses Arthur’s problem in one glance and goes on to provide him a happy counter-example. Franco might be broke (the fact that he’s in debt to a loan shark for $16,000 of gambling debt is the plot’s most contrived point), but he’s got ambition and confidence, and easily talks the reluctant Arthur (whom he quickly dubs “Arthur P,” since he can’t pronounce his Polish last name) into hiring him. The men embark on a tentative friendship, with Arthur pulling back as Franco pushes forward, and eventually, vice versa.

Franco’s secret is that he’s written the “great American novel,” a manuscript called America Will Be, after a Langston Hughes poem. The pages of Franco’s book are collected in mismatched notebooks and notepads held together by bungee cords in an unwieldy package that Franco carries in his backpack. As he pulls it out proudly, he announces that this is his only copy, which he hasn’t “put it in a computer or anything.” According to the conventions of theatrical realism, such a remark can only signal that the manuscript isn’t long for this world. The facility (in both senses of the word) of Letts’s writing insures that we know the novel won’t make it to the play’s end; once Arthur reads it and pronounces it good, too much rides on the manuscript as the vehicle of Franco’s deliverance for it to actually fulfill its promise.

[Spoiler alert!]

Neither man knows how to get the manuscript to people who might be able to publish it, dooming what very well might be Franco’s unique voice to the violent vagaries of the loan sharks (Luther Flynn, played by Robert Maffia, and his henchman Kevin Magee, played by Cliff Chamberlain), who destroy the book when they exact their vengeance for Franco’s unpaid loan.

When, in the second act, Office Bailey tells Arthur that Franco’s been hurt—Luther and his boy cut off three of Franco’s fingers—and his book trashed, the audience the afternoon I saw the play (Saturday, October 17th) gasped collectively. As my theatre-going companion LB Clark asked, what is it about a play like this that can manipulate so many spectators into such a unison response, even when some of us could have written this predictable outcome ourselves?

That collective expression of spectatorial dismay could be because, to Letts’s credit, Superior Donuts has painted Franco as such a winning, likable character, the sudden dead-ending of his dreams through the destruction of his manuscript feels like a real emotional blow. Letts has persuaded us to like Franco, to believe in him and his ability to shift not just his own fortunes, but Arthur’s, too. Under Franco’s quick and cajoling care, Arthur starts to come out of his shell. He teaches Franco how to make the donuts, an implicit act of trust, while Franco teaches Arthur how to ask Randy, the lonely policewoman, out for a date. The boy’s wit and fluidity with language—he speaks in a mixture of hip hop cadences and “plain” English that’s the most lyrical, poetic part of Letts’s play—along with his emotional candor and optimism, begins to pry the lid off Arthur’s reticence.

Played with subtly and grace by Michal McKean, Arthur’s face gradually becomes more mobile, his expressions broader and more open, almost as if we’re watching his features crack open at the start of a long-awaited thaw. McKean’s body begins as a still, lethargic, practically absent presence on stage, and gradually, through his enlivening interactions with Franco, begins to be re-inhabited by a gentle, caring man with a sweet sense of humor and a beguiling manner. He gathers his courage to ask Randy for a date, an invitation that gets her happily out of her masculine police-wear into a frilly flowered dress in which she bustles around behind the counter in the second act, already settling into a wifely domestic role.

But unfortunately, the road to happiness for the play’s white characters is literally paved with the blood of the African American young man. The characters’ business at the top of the second act prepares for Franco’s homecoming after his “accident,” with everyone readying the donut shop as if for a victory party. But when Franco arrives, the once garrulous, sweet-talking young man has been rendered mute. He sports a bulky bandage on his right hand, and his stature seems literally reduced.

Franco barely speaks through the rest of the play. Instead, he cries silently, mourning his newly abridged future as Arthur tries to persuade him that America Will Be can still be, that he still has his story, even if his manuscript has been cruelly destroyed. The play’s end painfully illustrates how American drama still relies on shopworn racial conventions in its plotting. Even in a play that wants to be progressive, as does Superior Donuts, people of color continue to provide the vehicle for white people’s growth and self-discovery instead of their own.

Superior Donuts, as its name suggests, is essentially “culinary,” as Brecht might describe it, in that it provides audiences with an easily digestible evening of racial encounters (in a kind of low-fat cruller sort of way) that lets a white spectator go home satisfied that progress—for them, at least—is possible. The humor Letts employs helps establish that tone. Franco’s first act banter is wise and funny; he makes jokes at Arthur’s expense, but always with affection and respect. For instance, suggesting he remake his appearance, Franco tells Arthur that the Grateful Dead probably doesn’t need a new drummer.

The jokes—which appear to be at the white liberal’s expense—bring easy, even knowing laughs that set up the cheap manipulative pathos that follows. Arthur learns to laugh at himself and his outmoded ways, while Letts also establishes his liberal credentials: Franco lets him read his manuscript only when Arthur proves he can name ten African American poets.

But all of Arthur’s liberal generosity—including the fact that he pays off Franco’s loan—can’t keep the African American young man from being hobbled, physically or psychically. Arthur decides to sell the store to the over-eager Russian Max at the play’s end, which provides him the seed money for his new life. Franco, the articulate, smart, hopeful vehicle of Arthur’s redemption, is left fingerless and jobless, alone without an employer, a friend, or a manuscript.

Superior Donuts’s production—which transferred from Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago—is impeccable, although its slick values underline the injustice of its pat plot. Landau’s fluid, confident direction keeps the narrative moving—despite Arthur’s awkward, confessional, direct-address monologues that pepper the play’s first act—and the laughs well timed.

The performances bring nuance and depth to characters that could too easily be stereotypes, including the loan sharks and the large, non-English speaking Russian who Max brings to intimidate Luther and Kevin. Hill and McKean form a lovely camaraderie, playing off one another with appealing ease, humor, and good-will.

James Schuette’s beautiful set evokes a frozen Chicago winter. Outside the shop’s door and front windows, the audience can see the narrow street, a parked car, a parking meter, and various pedestrians hurrying by as snowflakes occasionally drift down from the flies. The donut shop’s dilapidated state feels real enough that you can practically smell the old fryer oil, the exhaust from which has marked the walls with grime. The masking tape on which Arthur (or his father) has penciled the names of the pastries peels around the edges, the letters fading.

By the evening’s end, all this investment of talent and energy—in the acting, design, direction, and writing—seems squandered on a plot that tells a story as old and used up as the last, stale donut of the day, the one far less edible than its fresh superiors. What a shame that that donut represents Letts’s play.

The Feminist Spectator

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