Yearly Archives: 2010

The Social Network

The Social Network is a fantastic film that’s miserable to women. Aside from the overt ways in which it depicts college-age young women as insane, fear-inspiring shrews or as vacuous, sexualized objects, the film’s resolutely male worldview is a disturbing window into the misogyny not just of Ivy League privilege, but of the upper echelons of capitalist entrepreneurship.

Written with terse, vivid dialogue by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) that captures the short-hand and urgency of a world of students wired to their computers searching for what Harvard President Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski) calls in the film “the next great invention,” The Social Network captures the kind of raucous Ivy League undergrad experience in which trashed dorm rooms are full of boys drinking beer and dreaming up multimillion dollar schemes (or looking at sexy “girls” on-line).

Simply by being at Harvard, Sorkin and director David Fincher (Benjamin Button) imply, these guys gain entrée to a world of serious money and power that has little to do with what they’re taught in class. The few scenes in which professors lecture are ridiculously staid and intentionally boring compared to the fast-paced thinking and scheming that happens elsewhere on campus, where Sorkin and Fincher clarify that the real benefits of a Harvard education are to be had.

Mark Zuckerberg (the terrific Jesse Eisenberg) is a whiz-kid with serious social problems. In the film’s first scene, he deeply offends his girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), by obsessing about getting into one of the “final clubs” to which the most elite (mostly male) students at Harvard belong. The scene sets up everything we need to know about Zuckerberg: he’s a genius who aced his SATs; he’s a chauvinist about gender and class (he tells Erica surely she doesn’t have to study because she goes to Boston University); and he feels like an utter outsider because he’s a Jew at Harvard (which means he’s neither tall, nor athletic, nor blond, nor “cool,” which is what he most wants to be). By the scene’s end, Erica has emphatically dumped him because, as she announces, he’s also an asshole.

For a feminist spectator, what The Social Network communicates above all is the elite, exclusive, deeply male-oriented world of Ivy League and Silicon Valley entrepreneurship. After Erica dumps him, Zuckerberg gets online to write demeaning blog posts about her anatomy, seeking his revenge in the most sophomoric ways. In a fit of pique, he also creates a website called “,” on which people are invited to rate and rank images of Harvard women, whose photos he acquires by hacking into Harvard’s computer stores. Within hours, the site receives so much traffic it crashes the Harvard server.

Harvard men leer and call to each other to check out facemash, but Sorkin and Fincher include only one pair of women looking at the web page with dismay and anger. Their very brief scene demonstrates only that women were helpless in the face of the site’s viral power, and that their perspective is completely peripheral to the film at large.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film in which the “male gaze” has been so glorified and so gleefully promoted with so little real critique. Scene after scene demonstrates the traffic in women among Zuckerberg’s classmates and, later, his Facebook colleagues. A bus pulls up to the back entrance of one of Harvard’s final clubs to deliver 30 or so beautiful women as though they’re little more than kegs of beer. At the party, where everyone gets trashed on alcohol and drugs, the men smirk while the women make-out with one another for their titillation, or stand on tables to take their clothes off, or service the men sexually in not-so dark corners of the house.

At a campus lecture by Bill Gates, Zuckerberg and his roommate and erstwhile best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) are hit on by two Asian American women who recognize them as the founders of Facebook. They throw themselves at the two guys and give them blowjobs in a bar bathroom. Eduardo is delighted that he and Mark have “groupies”—the women are nothing but pretty faces, despite the fact that they’re also most likely Harvard undergrads with the brains and intellectual talent to be accepted to the school.

Eduardo continues to date, Christy Ling, his partner from that evening. She’s present the first time Eduardo and Zuckerberg meet Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the co-founder of Napster, in a scene that establishes Parker’s cultural capital and sees Christy matching Zuckerberg and Eduardo drink for exotic drink. She’s smart and quick, and understands Parker’s power and the allure of the big time he represents.

But inexplicably, the film turns Christy into a psychotic, controlling, predatory shrew who fulfills all the stereotypes of the Chinese dragon lady. Only under this film’s misogynist logic could she become so horrible. She shouts at Eduardo because he forgets to call her, and sets fire to a silk scarf he brings her from LA in a desperate attempt to appease her impossible demands. The film portrays Christy as a terrifying, irrational presence whom the reasonable, ethical Eduardo can’t contain.

Brenda Song plays Christy. On The Social Network’s official web site cast list, she’s named alongside her photo as a character, but the note includes no description and no actor’s bio. The male characters’ blurbs describe their relationships to the story, and the actors who play them are linked to the history of their own performance careers.

Likewise, Rooney Mara, as Erica, isn’t given a link to her career biography, although her character’s relationship to Zuckerberg is explained in a few short sentences. Why don’t these women actors deserve professional histories of their own? Is this evidence that the filmmakers think as much of their female performers as the male characters do of the women in the story?

When Zuckerberg forms a partnership with Parker, he moves his operations from Harvard to Palo Alto, where the women are portrayed as just as loose, easy, and disposable as they were in Cambridge. When Parker first appears in the film, he’s just had a one-night stand with a Stanford woman. We know she goes to Stanford because it’s written across her ass, on the tiny little briefs she wears when she gets out of bed. Her only purpose in the story is to introduce Parker to Facebook, even though she’s also witty, and quick, and a French major (which makes her entirely precious and impractical in Parker’s cutthroat capitalist world).

As Stacy, my stalwart film-going companion, notes, the scene is hateful because even smart, self-possessed women have no purpose in this movie other than to establish the credentials of the men. Aside from showing him her Facebook page, the scene’s only purpose is to show that Parker is smart enough to have sex with a brilliant Stanford girl.

When Parker and another girl knock on Zuckerberg’s door, surprised that he’s moved across the street from Parker in Palo Alto (a choice Zuckerberg makes quite intentionally), Zuckerberg tosses the guy a beer as he crosses through the kitchen. Parker catches it easily. Then the oh-so-chivalrous Zuckerberg tosses one to Parker’s girlfriend, and it hits the wall and breaks because she wasn’t expecting the bottle to come her way. He carelessly tosses her another one, which also shatters all over the floor.

The flummoxed young woman looks foolish and inept, through no fault of her own. It’s a short scene, but it concisely illustrates everything the characters—and, apparently, Sorkin and Fincher—think about women. Throughout The Social Network, the female characters serve purely as conduits for the men’s relationships or as adornments that represent the men’s successful professional lives.

When Parker seduces Zuckerberg with his fast talk of making billions of dollars and essentially ruling the world, Mark betrays Eduardo and throws in his lot with the narcissistic Napster king. Parker dates a Victoria’s Secret model, whose only role is to allow him to decorate himself. She also gives him an excuse to tell Zuckerberg how the lingerie company was founded, and how the man who created it sold himself short when the head of the Limited bought Victoria’s Secret and proceeded to make billions from the company. Parker’s paranoid, cautionary tales encourage Zuckerberg toward ever more mercenary heights of cutthroat business practices, leaving old friends like Eduardo and other Harvard colleagues in his wake.

Sorkin and Fincher aren’t interested in a character study so much as they are in a portrait of the times, a representation of the zeitgeist when a brilliant idea could careen into a huge personal fortune. But because Mark Zuckerberg is one of the most complicated hero-villains in the history of the movies, the screenwriter and director can’t help but psychologize his story. The founding of Facebook, according to their script, is fueled by Zuckerberg’s desire to make Erica notice him again, to make her realize that he’s a genius, not an asshole.

As the web site grows out of the confines of the Ivy League where it begins, he’s determined that one of the first universities to which it expands will be BU, where Erica goes to school. When he sees his ex- in a restaurant with her friends and approaches her to talk, Erica summarily and publicly rejects him again. That humiliation (rather than, say, greed), Sorkin and Fincher suggest, motivates Zuckerberg to expand his fame and fortune. The film ends with him sending Erica a friend request on Facebook, repeatedly clicking the enter key as he waits for a response.

Portraying Zuckerberg as a wounded Lothario is a cheap trick, when it’s clear from the rest of the story that capitalist invention is in fact driven by a world of connections facilitated by who you know and the clubs to which you belong. Women, in this schema, are interchangeable and disposable. In almost every scene, the continuous party happening in the background is populated with nubile, beautiful girls who are stoned out of their minds, giggling together, draped around one another on couches, or offering their bare midriffs up as tables on which their friends can snort coke. They’re mindless accessories of the most offensive sort. Only Erica is given any kind of story or psychology that lets us see her as something of a person. And even then, her story only serves to illustrate Zuckerberg’s.

The depositions Sorkin and Fincher intercut with the story of Facebook’s founding and triumph comment beautifully on the costs of Zuckerberg’s achievement. Eduardo sues Mark for bilking him out of his rightful share in the company they started together, and the preppie Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence, onto whose body Hammer’s face was digitally imposed) and their friend, Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), sue him for stealing their idea for Harvard Connection, a similar site meant to trade on the allure of a address to create an exclusive social network. Flashing back to the beginning of the story, then ahead to the depositions in both law suits, allows the filmmakers to trace the consequences of what in the moment look like Zuckerberg’s capricious decisions.

The guy’s coldly supercilious, superior behavior at these depositions presents him as an unlikeable cad, but the flashbacks complicate our sympathies—or at least that’s their intent. Clear from Sorkin and Fincher’s film is that Zuckerberg felt very much an outsider at Harvard, a Jew among gentiles, overly invested in being accepted by a club that would never call him one of its own. The final clubs he longs to join, Zuckerberg says, determine your access to wealth and connections. That Eduardo is “punched” by a club to which he’ll most likely be accepted wounds Zuckerberg deeply (according to the film). Eduardo knows his friend is jealous, and supplies his own excuse: the clubs want him for “diversity,” since Eduardo is Brazilian (but most importantly, he’s fabulously wealthy). Eduardo is also Jewish and was raised in Miami, but his Latin American exoticism is what gets him through the door of exclusive privilege.

Despite his brilliance, Zuckerberg knows he’ll always be on the outside of real power, looking in, invited only as far as the “bike room” of the Winklevoss’s final club where they pitch him their idea for Harvard Connection and enlist his programming help. His “fuck you” attitude, demonstrated by his invariable costume of hoodies, t-shirts, and plastic Adidas flip-flops, doesn’t protect him from his ultimate exclusion and he knows it. Despite his fame, he’s forever consigned to be a wired, Jewish nerd. He can create the world’s largest, most powerful social network, but the girl he desires remains forever out of his grasp, refusing his own friend requests.

If the film wants us to pity the poor brilliant rich boy, it halfway succeeds. Eisenberg’s performance is focused and intense, minus the usual self-deprecating, nouveau-Woody Allen shtick for which he’s usually cast. Instead, his Zuckerberg is crafty and calculating, trading his best friend for entrance into the bubble that only a snake like Sean Parker can provide.

Eisenberg never wavers in Zuckerberg’s own self-righteous defense, but during the deposition scenes in which Eduardo relates his ex-friend’s betrayal, you can see hints of ruefulness play around Mark’s eyes. The Winklevoss twins are beneath his contempt, partly because he knows he’ll never be them, and his success will only ever nip at the heels of their inherited power and prestige. But Eduardo was his buddy, and his loss leaves Zuckerberg truly alone.

At the film’s end, the female law partner helping to defend Zuckerberg at the depositions tells him that he’s really not an asshole, but he’s trying hard to act like one. Her gesture toward solicitude barely registers. Zuckerberg asks her to dinner and she declines. He stays behind, tapping on his laptop in the law firm’s darkened conference room, trying to get Erica to respond to his friend request. That the female law associate has the last word, and that Eduardo’s lawyer is a woman, can’t balance out the film’s hateful view of women as only bodies, as sexual entertainment for white male power and privilege, with absolutely no agency of their own.

I most regret that The Social Network is good enough that it will be acclaimed in the 2010 awards season without enough critical ink spilled about how it demeans, degrades, and disposes of women. We need a feminist outcry to remind audiences that creating a good film is no excuse for being so patently gender-biased and offensive. A few scenes that pointedly criticized the misogynist atmosphere the film winds up authorizing would have gone a long way toward calling attention to the highly sexualized social scene in which smart college-age young women continue to navigate. At Princeton, just this kind of predatory behavior makes women into “things” whose only purpose is male entertainment and sexual gratification (see, for example, Caroline Kitchener’s editorial, “Casanova on the Street”).

The Social Network isn’t quite smart enough or good enough to underline that Zuckerberg’s relationship with Parker is a homosocial bond, or that the women Parker brings to his parties are really his way of seducing his male friends by flaunting his hetero power. The film can’t come to terms with Zuckerberg and Eduardo’s love for one another, either. It can only align them in mutual glee as they revel in the enjoyment of blowjobs they receive in adjacent bathroom stalls by their Asian American female groupies. And as Stacy points out, how perfect that the rich Winklevoss boys are egotistical, identical twins. The environment is rife with homoeroticism, which is in so many ways the foundation of masculine privilege and power.

That’s the part of the social network on which Sorkin and Fincher fail to comment—perhaps because they’re enjoying its bounty themselves.

The Feminist Spectator

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Arthur Kopit’s 1978 play, directed by John Doyle in a visually and emotionally stirring revival at Second Stage, is a rather expressionist American drama with an emotional resonance that seems even more relevant now, when we know so much more about how accidents of the brain can affect cognition and expression.

In Kopit’s vivid one-act, Mrs. Emily Stilson suffers a stroke in the play’s first moments. As we watch, the book she’s reading, comfortable in her quiet solitude, tumbles to the ground as her brain suffers its sudden, inexplicable trauma. The rest of the 90-minute production charts her way back to language and to life from her perspective, representing a newly rearranged world in which what she thinks she’s saying isn’t necessarily what people hear and vice versa.

Kopit’s text calls for imagistic enactments of the character’s ordeal, rather than realistic depictions, since the play concerns is what it feels like to suffer a neurological event that so profoundly compromises a person’s ability to express herself or to make sense of what’s being communicated. In her masterful, moving performance, the consummate performer Jan Maxwell delivers Emily Stilson’s experience with haunting, moving precision, delivering her garbled words with the conviction that she and her interlocutors know exactly what she’s saying. The devastating sadness of understanding that she’s a perfectly intact mind trapped in a body that can’t communicate makes Stilson’s situation wrenching, and Maxwell’s empathetic, dignified portrayal riveting to watch.

Doyle is the perfect interpreter for Kopit’s play, adept as he is in the kinds of schematic stagings that distill a work to its emotional core with sharply drawn visual metaphors. His reconceptualized productions of Sweeney Todd and Company, both mounted on Broadway within the last several years, cut those Sondheim musicals to the bone of their edgy meanings, presenting Sweeney as a Grand Guignol of bloodlust and an incisive critique of social power, and Company as full of the animating resentments of heterosexual imperatives.

Likewise, with Wings, Doyle sees in the center of Kopit’s play a universal struggle to communicate from the isolation of our individual subjectivities. All we know of Emily Stilson is present in how she sits reading peacefully in her chair at the outset, her blue silk shirt and black pants gracing her middle-aged, comfortable body, her shoulder-length blonde hair falling onto her forehead as she turns the pages. Although her posture, stance, and costume don’t change throughout, Maxwell demonstrates by how she reacts to what’s happened to her the tragic consequences of losing a connection to others and to the world. Her emotional response is both subtle and deep as she struggles to reclaim language, to make herself understood beyond her humiliating objectification by doctors and nurses who with all good will but inevitable condescension, try to reach her after what they call her “accident.”

In this era of debates about health care, hospice care, and end-of-life treatment, and when we know that if you catch a stroke early, you can treat it with medication that forestalls the worst of its consequences, Stilson becomes a universal representation of patient-hood, in which the subject becomes diminished by the very medical establishment that wants to restore her to full health.

When the stroke attacks, Maxwell sits alone center stage on a simple black chair, lit with a sharply delineated spot that begins the symphony of light Jane Cox designs so beautifully to accompany and illustrate Emily’s journey. As Emily feels her brain waves veer out of control, the upstage wall is washed with projections (designed by Peter Nigrini) that represent exploding veins and wayward blood seeping over her cortex. Although they’re imaginative rather than graphic, the projections provoke the illusion of a brain bathed in a riot of uncontrolled, intruding electricity and fluid. The disorientations of these images concretize Emily’s pain and confusion. Occasionally, the shadow of a face is projected above her, as voices ask if she can hear them, if she knows her name, if she knows the year or the president. Doyle and his designers use the stage to emblematize the ravages of a stroke. The visual field becomes expressionistic, an insurgency of uncontrollable neurological events too over-stimulating for a coherent emotional response.

When Emily begins to sense her surroundings, she can feel that she’s not alone in the room whose dimensions she can barely perceive at the edges of her consciousness. In her attempt to narrativize what’s happened to her, she tells herself (and the audience, to whom she speaks directly throughout) that she’s been captured, dropped behind enemy lines among people who want information from her. She regards the doctors and nurses who swarm around her warily, refusing to respond to their questions or feeding them misinformation. She hears herself speaking clearly; they hear garbled speech or mis-chosen words through the aphasia that short-circuits her communication.

Doyle and set designer Scott Pask open metals slats in the back wall, like a stage-wide, two-level, vertical Venetian blind, to reveal the blindingly white-clothed medical personnel and their machines, who are choreographed in a frantic dance that swirls around Emily. They push mirrored steel panels and tables ahead and behind them to surround and frame their patient. Their chaotic activity externalizes what she sees and feels as she strives to understand. That the mirrored panels at times reflect the watching audience only underlines that the spectator’s work resembles Emily’s, as we all try to make meaning of what we see and hear, while we’re manipulated by forces beyond our control.

As Emily gains more command over her words and her ability to communicate, the production’s pace calms to the sometimes maddening speed to which Emily must slow down her speech and her thoughts as she tries to re-marshal her vocabulary and her ability to create sentences. Her speech therapist, Amy (January LaVoy) is a precise, controlled young woman, about whom we know nothing. All we see is her presentation of guarded warmth, presumably from Emily’s point of view. Although she figures more prominently in Emily’s recovery, Amy, like all the other characters, is schematic and two-dimensional, a pleasant, bland figure whose only purpose is to help Emily heal.

Wings is a play about language, about how precarious is our ability to communicate. Kopit and Doyle clarify that without communication, an individual’s solitude becomes unbearable. Wings’ group therapy scene, in which stroke victims at various stages of rehabilitation come together to practice speaking, is one of its more excruciating, as four very well-intentioned and otherwise capable people try to say what they mean and only come up with close approximations of words or imperfect substitutes.

The most capable among them is Billy, a chef who’s baked Amy a cheesecake and teases her about paying him for it. But even in his more adept framings, his words stop short of perfect sense, leaving holes he can’t navigate that demonstrate how even the smallest miscommunications devastate our ability to interact successfully. That each of the therapy group’s participants can recognize one another’s mistakes but can do so little to correct their own is the session’s wrenching illustration.

All Kopit’s script shares of Emily Stilson’s past is that she was a wing-walker, a stunt pilot who flew airplanes and walked out on their wings in mid-air. She remembers for the audience the exhilaration of flying, of feeling the air across her face and sensing the admiring crowd down below, who were unaware of the tether that held her to the plane. She describes grasping the steel cables she used to keep her balance, as the plane circled and banked, turning her topsy-turvy. On the plane’s wings, Emily is free, accomplished, and alone in her feats of daring but supported by the crowd she feels below her. Her soaring solo independence provides a poignant counterpart to her dismal earth-bound solitariness post-stroke. As the play moves her between these two poles, her fear, solitude, and brokenness become that much more heart-breaking.

Maxwell never asks the audience to pity Emily, even as she delivers such a precise and moving portrait of her dilemma. The performance feels almost private, so adept is she at creating what is indeed Emily’s capture by forces well out of her control. Maxwell’s masterful performance anchors the production, and Doyle’s sense of style and the images he carves from space and time flesh out what’s really a picture of a very private experience.

Exactly that challenge could make or break a production of Wings, as the play’s action is confined to a woman’s reconstruction of her own subjectivity and her ability to stand fully within it. The narrative has little shape or trajectory; that is, Emily moves from profound trauma to a semblance of “normal” life, but the play’s end even throws into doubt the fullness of her recovery. The play holds little suspense; the other characters are two-dimensional diagrams of the people-effects who now populate Emily’s world. Much of the dialogue is Emily’s ruminations about what’s happened to her, or her slowly reestablishing reminiscences about her past, about the stuff and substance of who she was and may or may not be again. The images are keen and poignant, but much of the language is gibberish, as Emily and her fellow stroke victims try to work through their aphasia.

I felt tense throughout the preview performance I saw on October 9, 2010, not sure if the audience felt as gripped as I did by the painful determination of an accomplished woman struck down through no fault of her own. In fact, two-thirds of the way through the performance, two men left their seats in the second or third row and rudely crossed in front of the stage apron to leave the theatre, directly in front of Maxwell and the other actors. Theirs seemed a bold statement of displeasure, one I worried other spectators shared.

But at the curtain call, people cheered for Maxwell and the cast, rising to their feet to applaud her sensitive, moving portrait of an experience we all know could someday be ours. Her dignity and strength, her persistence even from within her sadness, her willingness to probe her own vulnerability as a corollary to Emily’s own, all provide a remarkable experience of theatre as a distillation of a life.

The Feminist Spectator

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Mrs. Warren’s Profession

Shaw’s moral drama about sexual hypocrisy and the constraints of gender offers two terrific roles for women and somehow always seems relevant. Shaw embeds his polemic in a story of a singular mother and a strong-willed daughter whose lives stand at cross-purposes. Kitty Warren (played by the eminent Cherry Jones, who I’d hazard to say is one of the best American actors working on stage and screen today), unbeknownst to her daughter, Vivie (the British actress Sally Hawkins, late of Mike Leigh’s film, Happy Go Lucky), is a madam on a grand scale, maintaining “houses” in Brussels, Vienna, and elsewhere around the continent that allows her to fund her daughter’s education and comfortable country life.

When Kitty descends on her daughter’s rural estate with two of her city friends—the dandyish Praed and the opportunistic Sir George Croft—Vivie demands to know more about her enigmatic mother.At the end of the evening, Kitty confesses the history of the straitened circumstances into which she was born, and the lengths to which she and one of her sisters were forced to travel to survive. That Kitty neglects to tell Vivie that the brothels in which she made her way continue to thrive, with Kitty now at their helm, becomes the source of their ultimate, permanent estrangement and undoing.

Doug Hughes directs this production for Roundabout Theatre with confidence and verve, pruning the text and keeping the performers moving at a distinctly contemporary clip. Scott Pask’s beautiful set folds out and back on itself to reveal the garden of Vivian’s country estate and then its wood-paneled interior. The second act’s revelation scene takes place in the garden of the nearby rectory, where the dithering clergyman Samuel Gardner (Michael Siberry) and his wily son, Frank (Adam Driver), fall under the spell of the Warren women in their own ways and for their own mercenary reasons. The set changes here are rather old-fashioned; a “show pause” interrupts Act One and Two, and then Act Three and Four, after intermission, so that the rather realistic set can be transformed, which recalls Shaw’s social realist intent.

In the secluded garden, backing the 13th century church where the far from religiously worthy Rev. Gardner delivers sermons he buys pre-composed, the machinating gentleman Sir George Crofts tries to manipulate Vivie into marrying him. He tells the young woman the truth of her mother’s fortune and intimates the truth of Vivie’s parentage. In the play’s final scene, Vivie has moved permanently to the city, stripping herself of vestigial illusions, vehemently rejecting Frank’s romantic propositions and her mother’s continuing financial support or emotional connection. The small, worn actuarial office in which she works looks claustrophobic, the light from its large windows glaring with harsh and hard reality.

In Hughes’ brisk interpretation, Shaw’s play is by turns a comedy and a scene-chewing melodrama.The humor trades on Praed’s dandyism (delivered with perfect, smug self-possession and posing by Edward Hibbert), Crofts’ paper-thin veneer of probity (well-represented by Mark Harelik), Rev. Gardner’s moral lassitude, and Frank’s oily flirtations. Vivie and Kitty’s relationship carries the melodrama, with Hawkins and Jones ripping through their confrontations with deliciously focused zeal.

As Kitty, Jones is festooned in gowns just short of garish and oversized hats that frame a curly red wig, her chest and arms hung with ornaments. Jones swans about the stage, flaunting Kitty’s nouveau riches. But Kitty’s façade is riddled with holes that Jones reveals when her too grand gestures devolve into slouching postures, and when her purposefully hybrid British accent begins to sound more Cockney than country. Jones plays Kitty as highly performative. She and Hughes chart how her performance of a proper English woman finally flounders on the shoals of Vivie’s distrust, accusation, and rejection.

Hawkins, dismissed in the New York Times by Ben Brantley as miscast, offers what I instead found a compelling interpretation of Vivie’s journey toward knowledge and independence. Hawkins is a small, slight woman. One of the play’s first sight gags has Vivie’s overly firm handshake sending the newly arrived Praed and then Crofts into spasms of surprise and pain. Given Hawkins’ stature, this usually funny, meaningful shtick doesn’t play as clearly. But Hawkins’ size makes her determination to be independent, finally free of emotional, familial, or financial indebtedness, that much more poignant, because you can see how hard she has to work to persuade even herself that she’ll be able to live without Frank’s attentions and her mother’s investment.

Hawkins proves a worthy match for Jones’ Kitty in part because they appear so different physically.Vivie’s dresses are plain and utilitarian (perfectly designed by Catherine Zuber), suitable for a very smart young woman whose life plays out among books and the actuarial tables that she studies for a friend in town. Mrs. Warren’s operatic outfits—and Jones tall and solid stature—let her tower over Vivie, yet finally don’t protect the older woman from the devastation of her only daughter’s rejection.

In their final battle, Hughes and his actors find a distinctly homoerotic tension between the two women, as Kitty describes how she rebuffed the attentions of the girls in her employ, saving her love for the daughter she expected to comfort her in her old age. Vivian’s refusal feels like the struggle toward independence of the pure young mistress who’s been kept on the side in the country while her older lover makes her life among the corruptions of the city.

Although Vivie’s father may or may not be the dissolute Rev. Gardner, Hughes’ production underlines that Kitty is undoubtedly her mother’s daughter. Vivie proclaims that she will never cry or faint; likewise, Kitty is distressed at the thought that she, too, might be seen crying. Jones daubs her brightly painted face with a handkerchief, pushing away the emotion she thinks weakens her.

Hawkins keeps her back straight but allows an array of conflicting emotions to continually cross her face. When she finally shows Kitty the door in the worn, small office to which she’s consigning her future, Vivie asks her mother for one last handshake. Jones nearly growls at her, lurching toward the young woman with her teeth bared. The moment is chilling and right, but only an actor as strong and willing as Jones would be brave enough to play it.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession isn’t exactly a feminist classic, but Shaw’s dramaturgy gives the canon of modern drama two meaty women’s roles among its collection of men who illustrate the moral hypocrisy of his era and our own. When the brutal Crofts tells Vivie the truth about Kitty in a base effort to buy her hand in marriage, he asserts the impossibility of keeping oneself pure in transactions of any kind. That Vivie would be repulsed by her mother’s business, he suggests, demonstrates her naiveté more than a superior morality.

Vivie consigns herself to much reduced circumstances with her high-brow revolt against her mother’s occupation. With Hughes, Hawkins, and the amazing Cherry Jones commanding the story, Kitty and Vivian’s final battle of recrimination, need, and obstinacy plays as a devastating emotional break-up more than the principled stand against immorality as which it’s often staged.

Vivie’s rejection of her mother plays as the self-defeating pride of a young woman pretending that she doesn’t need the parent whose money has supported her but whose absence has destroyed her.Kitty’s final exit punctuates what is here an emotional rather than a moral defeat. Kitty has lost her daughter, but her faith in the necessity and righteousness of her profession is unshaken.

In this production, the play describes a complicated relationship between two women cut from the same cloth, who finally can’t find enough space between them to continue living in the same orbit.But Shaw’s political message resonates nonetheless. Vivie stakes her claim as the unmarried, independent “new woman,” but in Hughes’ interpretation, hers isn’t a victory so much as a rather defiant, compromised choice among a very constrained pair of options. Shaw’s incipient feminism is heightened here by tempering the moral consequences of the play and underlining that given their historical moment, neither woman can truly win.

The Feminist Spectator

Orlando, Classic Stage Company

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is a flight of gender fantasy written as a love letter to Vita Sackville-West who, along with her husband, Leonard Woolf, anchored Woolf’s emotional and amorous life.Orlando is something of a feminist classic, the story of a young nobleman who inexplicably becomes a woman half-way through a life that extends across hundreds of years.

The book provides a happy complement to Woolf’s oeuvre, demonstrating the imaginative possibilities of believing that gender really is mutable and malleable, a plaything of culture rather than a true expression of body or soul. Sally Potter re-imagined Orlando in a 1992 film version that starred Tilda Swinton, she of sharp cheekbones, flaming red hair, and angular body, whose androgynous appearance and avant-garde art pedigree let her slip easily into the role.

In a program note for this Classic Stage Company production, playwright Sarah Ruhl calls Orlando“part novel, part fabulation, part biography, part theatrical escapade, part poetry.” Ruhl adapts it into a sweetly theatrical love letter to love and life itself, with a great deal of affection for story-telling and performance thrown in along the way.

With Rebecca Taichman’s inventive direction, Annie-B Parson’s subtle, gilding choreography, and exuberant performances, especially by Francesca Faridany in the title role, Orlando becomes by turns wistful, lustful, wondering, and affirming as a tale of a man/woman who wants to love, to live, and especially and finally, to write.

Woolf’s words provide the text Ruhl creates, framing Orlando’s story reader’s theatre-style. Three men dressed in white pants, vaguely stylized white jackets, and undershirts (by Anita Yavich, whose costume design helps along nicely the production’s fluid representations of gender) form the chorus of narrators who play men’s and women’s roles as the story proceeds.

Tom Nelis and Howard Overshown are wonderful as Russian sailors, female parlor maids, ruffled attendants to the queen, and various other incidental characters with whom Orlando interacts in her various guises. Along with assisting the story telling, David Greenspan plays the Queen—an unsurprising but humorous bit of casting that lets a queen play a queen—as a fusty but kind old woman taken enough with the young Orlando to bring him to her court as her consort.

The ensembles’ changing roles are marked with bits of costume or none at all as, without much fanfare, they change their voices and their gender performances. Greenspan’s queen dons a royal costume and neck ruff that descends from the flies like an oversized paper doll dress. He hangs it from his shoulders and buckles it around his waist, extending his arms to either side in imperial gestures required by the circumference of his outfit.

These meta-theatrical flourishes demonstrate not just the potential of theatre to transform character, but the surface enactments of gender and power, and the ways in which our culturally and historically situated costumes often do contour our movements and inflections.

Greenspan’s trademark mugging works appropriately here to underline what Woolf and Ruhl already present as a gentle satire of queenly gender. That he carries his flamboyant queerness into his narration and his other characters also productively emphasizes sexuality and gender fluidity.

Likewise, Nelis and Overshown move freely through a range of gendered behavior, and while their white outfits might aim toward a “neutral” baseline, Taichman and the actors are in fact careful not to suggest that a performance could be fashioned in which gender isn’t present. Happily, then, thisOrlando doesn’t present “non-gender” as some sort of desirable utopia, but suggests instead that the joy comes from how we might continually reinvent our gendered performances.

Faridany, as Orlando, achieves the same non-prescriptive gender goal. Yavich dresses her, too, in white, with slim riding pants and a flowing over-shirt not exactly hiding her body so much as muting its contours. The Queen and Orlando’s lovers comment on his shapely legs, already suggesting something of female allure in his boy’s body.

The brown suede knee-high boots Orlando wears throughout—even under the rustling dress that cloaks her after her transformation into femaleness in the second act—ground him/her in action or its possibility, and makes him appear both mobile and somehow soft. They allow Faridany to stay grounded but quick, and let her sink easily into the grass Orlando so wants to describe through poetry (but can only, inadequately, humorously, repeatedly call “green”).

Throwing herself whole-heartedly into Orlando’s wonderings and wanderings, Faridany is a pleasure to watch, from Orlando’s earliest boyish musings and yearnings to the more mature yet still happily wide-eyed reflections of her middle years as a woman. Faridany’s voice brings a deep, resonant quality to Woolf’s language, and her British accent seems to authorize the story without making it sound pretentious or distanced. The narrative, after all, moves from the 17th century to the present, as the ensemble and Orlando announce the passage of moments in quick succession.

All five actors beautifully command the vocal and physical rigors that Ruhl and Taichman construct for the story, as together, they create a world that both transforms and stays the same over time.When Orlando leaves his nobleman’s home for the Queen’s court and winter descends, the three men cover the green stage turf with a shimmering white cloth.

Suddenly, the scene transforms into snowy ice on which Orlando sees Sasha, the woman who will become his true love, skating by in her red velvet coat and round Russian hat. Parsons choreographs the skating like a dance, and subtle effects deliver the sound of steel scratching against ice.

Annika Boras plays Sasha, the only character and actor whose gender stays constant throughout.Yet Sasha, too, wears trousers under her velvet robe, and her scrappy femininity is hardly quiescent.Using a broad Russian accent for laughs, Boras is all vitality and lust, falling into Orlando’s arms and practically devouring him as they gaze into one another’s eyes.

Boras and Faridany are terrific together as the lovers, in performances physically precise and exuberant and emotionally sweet and full. Taichman directs them to be in constant contact, arms entwined or draped around each other’s shoulders, eyes locked, hands cupping one another’s necks and in each other’s hair, lips crushed together—this is love as an explosion of erotic energy, full of agency and barely contained desire.

But Sasha betrays Orlando, her wily, hungry sexuality overcoming any impulse toward fidelity. First she flirts with a Russian sailor who reminds her of home. Then Sasha fails to arrive at the rendezvous Orlando has planned so that they can run away together, escaping the marriage of propriety to which Orlando is already engaged. Faridany’s response to Sasha’s betrayal of Orlando is physical as well as emotional; she climbs a ladder at the stage wall to look for Sasha, crying out in agony when the woman is nowhere to be found.

And then Orlando falls into a deep sleep, laying his head on huge pillows that the ensemble brings to cushion his fall into unconsciousness. They hide the hero with another shimmering white cloth large enough to cover the whole stage, while they describe Orlando’s refusal to be awakened. When he finally opens his eyes and stands, letting the silky sheet fall from his loins, Faridany is naked, stretching her limbs in light that looks like the sun. The ensemble gazes at Orlando’s new form in wonder before wrapping her back up in the sheet and closing the first act.

This moment in Orlando offers quick visual evidence of the character’s transformation. Flashes of full-frontal female nakedness like this are sometimes uncomfortable. The performer’s vulnerability becomes palpable, and the symbolism of the moment can be heavy and obvious. Kathleen Chalfant’s brief, triumphant nudity at the end of Wit comes to mind, as the professor who’s died of cancer achieves a spiritual, if not physical, transcendence in death.

But in Orlando, Taichman and Faridany (and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, who floods the moment with the glow of a brand new morning) use nudity to illustrate Orlando’s turn in the road rather than a “rebirth”—that is, Orlando/Faridany stays relatively the same, even if her apparatus has miraculously shifted.

The contemporary resonances of the story solidify in the second act. Orlando, now weighed down with the floor-length, wide dresses of Victorian womanhood, finds herself responded to through the lens of her new femininity, rather than addressed as the still independent, clamoring subject beneath. She’s first told that she can’t own property as a woman; Faridany’s eye-rolling response carries the feminist critique.

Orlando tries on her new physical exterior while she resists the constraints femininity seems to bring, so that the character does seem to have simply changed his clothes and not really his affections. She marries a man—just as Woolf did—but Sasha continues to play in her emotional imagination as the unattainable erotic object on whom Orlando’s affections fix.

When the “present” dawns, the ensemble peels away Orlando’s dress to reveal the pants and tunic in which she began her journey, and her body relaxes back into the grounded, easy physicality of her younger male self, even though she’s now a 36-year-old woman. She moves through time and cultural mores, weathering them all with a wry knowingness, and preserving the freedom of spirit and soul that lets her engage with such eagerness and ease across each era.

Orlando wants nothing more than to write. In fact, Ruhl’s note explains that Woolf suffered from a terrible writer’s block before she wrote Orlando. The program quotes Woolf’s 1927 letter: “Yesterday morning I was in despair . . . I couldn’t screw a word from me; and at last dropped my head in my hands: dipped my pen in the ink, and wrote these words, as if automatically, on a clean sheet:Orlando: A Biography. No sooner had I done this than my body was flooded with rapture and my brain with ideas. I wrote rapidly . . .”

The production, too, ends with Orlando him/herself settling back down into her beloved green grass, and finally constructing the well-turned sentences that have eluded her throughout.Taichman has Faridany scrawling happily on the ground, creating her story(ies) as the play—a valentine to theatricality and perpetual self-recreation—ends.

Lovely images as well as emotions support the tremendous heart in this production. The CSC space is arranged in a modified thrust, with the audience surrounding the playing space on three sides and actors entering and exiting through the aisles, which creates the warm intimacy on which the performances capitalize.

Orlando’s estate is represented by a doll’s house of sorts, its windows alight with a soft glow. The sprawling mansion is portable; Nelis carries it across the length of his arm to represent Orlando’s early travels, and then places it in a high ledge on the upstage wall, where it glimmers intermittently, a beacon of home to which Orlando eventually returns.

A canted, gilded mirror hangs over the green square that frames that action, suggesting the funhouse of time, action, and performance in which Orlando’s antics play out. The richly green artificial grass that carpets the stage floor lets the actors’ costumes stand out in sharp relief against its backdrop, and evokes a pastoral setting for the production’s playful confrontation with cultural constraint.

Orlando’s production design evokes the binaries—nature/culture, male/female, inside/outside—that the performance challenges so good-naturedly. The ensemble moves simple wooden chairs around the outside of the square, perching on them to watch, comment, or move the narration along, creating suggestions of place and movement.

Taichman keeps the theatricality simple, so that the performers’ bodies and voices carry the story’s verve and wonder. With a light touch, and an unerring, warm feel for humor and affection, she brings Ruhl’s adaptation of Woolf’s text alive. Orlando’s gender performances—played so fearlessly, commandingly, and compellingly by Faridany—become the stuff of possibility and potential.

Orlando isn’t a romance about lovers whose stars are crossed by gender confusion, but an embodiment of Woolf’s text, a love letter to our human capacity to love, perhaps outside the cultural dictates of gender. The production turns Woolf’s story into a wistful, funny, moving meditation on what it means to long, to love, to be alive, and to construct yourself not through gender—which here is just something to pass into and out of—but through words and the transformative power of the stage.

The Feminist Spectator

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The Hunger Games

I seem to be about 10 steps behind the zeitgeist, coming to the Larsson trilogy and now Suzanne Collins’ young adult dystopian novels later than most. I stumbled onto The Hunger Games, the first in the series, just as Mockingjay, the final installment, was making its debut, and I’m now almost through the second book, Catching Fire. But what a wild ride. Not since the Harry Potter series and Carl Hiassen’s eco-mystery-satires have I been so gripped by stories written for young people.

The Hunger Games trilogy stars its narrator, Katniss, the sixteen-year-old girl who is thrust into heroism by offering herself as a substitute for her 12-year-old sister, Prim, in the brutal reaping that populates the barbaric Hunger Games of the dystopian nation of Panem. The country is divided into twelve districts, each of which bears responsibility for a certain sector of production: agriculture, industrial, mining, etc. The Capitol controls these districts, employing Peacekeepers to keep the population in line, while its own residents revel outlandishly in their safety and privilege.

People in the districts constantly face starvation and physical deprivation, as their food is strictly rationed and their subsistence-level existences require scraping out the most meager of livings. In the Capitol, residents cavort freely and excessively, painting their skin in vibrant colors, wearing outlandish wigs and adornments and outfits of luxurious and loud materials, and bingeing and purging so that they can consume huge feasts of rich food. The division between the haves and have-nots couldn’t be more sharply drawn.

Katniss’s father was a miner who died with other men in an explosion in her own District 12, leaving her to care for her severely depressed and withdrawn mother and Prim. The scrappy Katniss uses what her father taught her about hunting—illegally, outside the electrified fence that surrounds the district—to feed her family and to supply squirrel, rabbit, and wild turkey meat to the Hob, the center of the black market exchange where Katniss trades her game for other necessities.

Katniss hunts with her friend Gale, a taciturn but determined young man who dreams of escape, and whose beautifully set snares entrap as much food as Katniss can fell with the bow and arrow she wields like an Olympic archer. They risk death to provide for their families, since hunting outside the boundaries of their district is forbidden. But the Peacekeepers of District 12 are lax, participating in its underground trade and turning a blind eye to their community’s illegal activities. In other districts, such violations are punished with death.

The Capitol’s cruelest mode of control is the annual Hunger Games, staged to remind citizens of the costs of rebelling against the government’s control. Every year, two “tributes” from each of the nation’s twelve districts are brought to a pre-constructed arena where they battle to the death until only one of them remains alive and is declared the victor.

The tributes are young people from each district, one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen, who are selected in the “reaping,” an annual, public lottery in which the unlucky kids’ names are read aloud. Twenty-four young people travel to the Capitol, where they prepare to compete.

When Katniss’s sweet sister Prim is selected in the reaping that begins The Hunger Games, Katniss immediately, frantically offers herself as Prim’s substitute, an allowed but almost unheard of gesture of nobility and selflessness. Implicitly sacrificing her life for her sister’s, Katniss is whisked off into a world driven by the Capitol’s illusion-making machinery, which orchestrates every bit of the pre-Games festivity and eventually, the Games themselves.
Peeta, the son of District 12’s baker, is selected as its male tribute, Katniss’s partner but ultimately just another of her enemies in the Hunger Games.

The two are shepherded through their preparatory sessions by the drunken Haymitch, the only former tribute from their district to have won the Games, and by Effie Trinket, the affected martinet assigned by the Capitol, who makes sure they adhere to their schedule. Effie sees Katniss and Peeta mostly as her meal ticket, as she stands to benefit professionally should one of them win the Games.

The four travel by train through Panem to the Capitol, where their scarred and worn bodies are buffed and polished for presentation to the cameras that track their training and their performance in the Games. Their abilities are assessed as their bodies are strengthened, and they’re taught additional skills that will at least make them viable competitors, if not victors.

Katniss and Peeta are fattened up like calves on their way to the slaughter. The meals they’re served on the train and in the training center are so rich they can barely keep them down. The ministrations of their “teams”—make-up artists, costume designers, performance consultants, along with Haymitch and Effie—are calculated to make them as appealing as possible to the viewers who watch their interviews and see every moment of their progress toward the competition. Eventually, every moment of the Games themselves is televised live.

By presenting the Hunger Games as the Capitol’s cruel entertainment for Panem’s citizens, Collins skillfully critiques the contemporary media industry for how it constructs a reality that serves the powerful and manipulates the masses through carefully controlled scripts and images.

The tributes’ appeal, after all, is part of what will keep them alive. As the Games progress, viewers who can raise the necessary funds are able to send support to contestants, which enhances their chances of surviving and even winning the cruel struggle. A contestant with no appeal to spectators risks being left on his or her own during the Games, while one for whom the audience cheers could potentially receive additional food, medicine, or weapons that will increase his or her chances of staying alive.

And so Katniss and Peeta are molded into a narrative with clear sex appeal. In their first public appearance, the couple is presented together in a chariot, with their costumes set on fire, a captivating image that becomes Katniss’s motif throughout the pre-Games events. Her master stylist, Cinna, has a talent for how to sell his new client, and his insights and empathy extends into their personal relationship, as he becomes one of the few on her team whom Katniss really trusts.

The melancholy of these relationships is evident from the start, as Katniss and Peeta’s team prepares them to compete, while everyone understands the odds against their winning. The two young people are really being prepared to die.

[Spoiler alert.]

In between bouts of falling down drunkenness, their mentor Haymitch devises a love story for the two District 12 tributes that encourages Panem’s citizens to invest in Katniss and Peeta’s survival. The strategy works, as the romance captures the viewers’ attentions and their emotions. But unbeknownst to Katniss, Peeta truly is in love with her, while she burns something of a flame for Gale, whom she knows is caring for the family she left behind at home. Thrown together in extreme circumstances, though, Katniss and Peeta develop an intimate relationship that Katniss, too, begins to believe is real.

To Collins’ credit, though, The Hunger Games can hardly be called a tween romance novel, even of the Gothic sort that drives the Twilight saga. Although she has feelings for Gale and eventually Peeta, Katniss doesn’t want to marry, because she knows any child she’d bear would become part of the machinery of reaping and tributes and the brutal, gladiatorial Games that organize every citizen’s life and presage their deaths.

The seeds of her resistance to the Capitol’s fascism appear in her refusal to believe in the gendered narrative of giddy romance her handlers insist she perform. In her portrait of Katniss, Collins demonstrates that gender is indeed a performance. The independent, athletic, wily young woman has to be coached in the giggly, submissive, head-over-heels-in-love, clinging femininity that she performs to persuade viewers that she’s in love with Peeta.

The Hunger Games trilogy crosses 1984’s sci-fi dystopia with mythic stories of more typically male heroism. Collins twists the gender expectations, since Katniss is the hero who undergoes a series of trials and obstacles to arrive at her goal. Collins creates an Orwellian world in which invisible cameras are always watching and broadcasting as the Games begin and proceed.

As Katniss and Peeta enter the arena and begin their desperate attempt to survive, the brutality of the Games is sharpened by their knowledge that their every move is scrutinized by the viewing nation. Watching the Games is mandatory, since through this annual rite, the Capitol secures its power over the districts. Even at night, securing herself to branches high in the trees she climbs for safety, Katniss can’t let down her guard.

Collins propels us through the Games at a breathless pace. The narrative, told in Katniss’s voice, is unadorned, grim and determined, as we read about Katniss strategizing first toward her own survival. The Gamekeepers constantly manipulate the rules, sending new trials and tribulations, from fire to water to “muttations,” reengineered mutant beasts determined to savagely kill off the tributes. When they decide that for the first time ever, two tributes from the same district will be allowed to win the Games together, Katniss and Peeta join forces to overcome their enemies.

Throughout the violent proceedings, Katniss’s inventive, clever ideas keep her and Peeta alive. It’s Katniss who keeps Peeta from certain death, after he’s attacked and lies bleeding in the mud by a stream. It’s Katniss who outsmarts the “Career” tributes, those who’ve been bred for these competitions and band together to kill off the others before competing with one another to become the last to survive.

When the evil Gamekeepers decide to change the rules back at the end, insisting that only one tribute be allowed to win, it’s Katniss who offers poisonous berries to Peeta, intent on staging a joint suicide that will secure their mythology as star-crossed lovers and that would leave the Capitol with no winner of the Games at all.

That final act, which keeps Katniss and Peeta alive and heralded as the Games’ dual winners and the heroine and hero of Panem, brands Katniss a rebel, as she’s dared to flout the Capitol’s authority. When the trilogy’s second book, Catching Fire, opens, she pays the price for her daring when she’s visited in her new, luxurious, well-provisioned home—the gift to all winners of the Games—by President Snow, the reptilian leader of Panem, whose breath smells like roses and blood.

Snow tells Katniss that he knows her relationship to Peeta is only a performance and that her rebellious joint suicide attempt must be defanged by her future fidelity to the script of their headlong tumble into love and, he insists, marriage. Katniss pleads that she threatened to eat the poison berries because she was hopelessly in love; Snow knows her plan was a ploy to keep both herself and Peeta alive. Now, he demands reparations, and if he’s not happy, he threatens to kill Gale and Katniss’s mother and Prim.

I’m racing through Catching Fire, propelled by a plot that keeps twisting and turning, and by word of the hopeful rebellions growing in the other districts, for which Katniss reluctantly begins to see she must stand as a symbol throughout the nation. Panem’s citizens, it seems, aren’t quite as convinced as they might be by the Capitol media’s manipulations, and are beginning to see beneath the charades presented to further its own power and ideology.

Katniss is the perfect leader for such a rebellion, a girl heroine for the ages—tough, smart, and cunning, with her emotions roiling but in check, so that she can be responsible to those she loves and insure their common survival.

The Feminist Spectator

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