Tag Archives: women in theatre

The How and the Why

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Sarah Treem’s terrific new play, in a beautiful production directed by Emily Mann at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, is that it’s a two-hander for women in which no one kills themselves. Performed with commitment, humor, and nuance by Mercedes Ruehl and Bess Rous, The How and the Why is actually a play of ideas.

Much of the dialogue addresses competing philosophies about the evolution of women’s reproductive systems. To hear two women scientists of two different generations, both clearly brilliant, parse out their concepts and compare notes on what it means to do research about womenas women is a distinct pleasure. My evening at McCarter reminded me how rarely women’s ideas, spoken by fully formed, complex female characters, are heard on stage.

To reveal that Rachel Hardeman (Rous) is the 28-year-old daughter that Zelda Kahn (Ruehl) gave up for adoption when Rachel was born isn’t to spoil a major plot point. Although their relationship is clarified gradually in the first few scenes, their mutual awkwardness quickly tips off the audience that this is the meeting of a daughter given up by the woman who gave birth to her.

Rachel, whose initiative prompted their meeting, displays a volatile mix of hostility and guarded curiosity, while Zelda tries to contain her excitement and interest in the young woman. But because she’s a scientist, Zelda approaches their first-ever conversation with efficient reasonableness, proposing that Rachel’s questions must fall into categories like the biological and the psychological, as well as the personal.

Rachel, however, has a more complicated agenda, and she isn’t easily maneuvered by Zelda’s power and authority. Although they meet on Zelda’s turf, in the spacious, wood-lined office of the university where she’s a distinguished evolutionary biology professor, Rachel’s ambitions keep her moving into and out of Zelda’s range, as the two women get to know one another by sparring over their work.

Zelda’s career was secured by a theory she calls the Grandmother Hypothesis, which suggests that women live longer than men because in primitive cultures, women were constantly pregnant, and could never have provided their growing young children enough nourishment without another adult woman caretaker (who wasn’t continuously pregnant) lending a hand.

Rachel’s nascent career depends on her own theory about women and reproduction, which proposes that women menstruate not to flush away the uterus’s unused reproductive apparatus each month but because male sperm is toxic and creates a bacterial environment that needs to be cleansed. (Both theories are, apparently, real; Treem, a lead writer for HBO’s In Treatment, mentions in the program notes that she discovered them in Natalie Angier’s book, Woman: An Intimate Geography.)

Although Rachel resents Zelda’s abandonment, she can’t help but envy the older woman’s access to the very circles of power that Rachel longs to join. When Zelda offers her an open spot at a major conference from which Rachel was initially rejected, Rachel jumps at the chance, but with one twisted condition that sets out the play’s major sub-theme. Her boyfriend, Dean, who’s also an evolutionary biologist, must present the paper with her, ostensibly because they share their research.

Rachel’s wrong-headed impulse becomes the occasion for Treem to explore two very different generations of women’s relationship to feminism and its capacity for describing and defining not just their professional but also their personal lives. Zelda has never married; her work, she insists, has been more than enough. Rachel sees this as a personal sacrifice she finds anathema. Her adoptive parents recently died, and Dean is the only person to whom she’s emotionally connected.

Even though the couple’s professional competition is lopsided—Rachel is clearly the more talented researcher, with a post-doc waiting when she graduates and an NIH award already in hand—Rachel thinks she should put Dean’s career first. Because they talk through their work together, she also thinks she owes him the shared conference spot. The idea drives Zelda wild, because from her perspective, Rachel’s choice makes her subservient to a man, deferring her own career options to bolster his.

To Treem’s credit, the opinions on both sides, throughout this very argumentative play, are thoroughly persuasive, so that the deck isn’t obviously stacked in either woman’s favor. Since I am closer to Zelda’s generation of white American feminists in their mid- to late-50s, her arguments sounded familiar and reasonable. And as someone who takes great pleasure in my own work, I could understand Zelda’s commitment to her hypothesis and her research. But I can imagine people aligning themselves in numerous ways with the arguments advanced by both women.

For instance, Rachel, on the other hand, archly suggests that a stellar career isn’t worth it if you’re alone in your life (something—I would submit—people rarely suggest is the case for men). She presumes that Zelda is lonely, but Zelda corrects her, and thankfully, again, Treem doesn’t fall into the clichéd trap of punishing Zelda for her own professional choices. In fact, Rachel envies Zelda’s example, since even though she’s not yet thirty, Rachel already feels she’s too old to be the wunderkind she wants to be. She longs to make her mark in the scientific community, and clearly sees Zelda as a professional role model.

But Rachel’s ambivalence, too, has weight and makes sense. When is dedication to your work too much, even when that work can have revolutionary consequences? How do we measure the success or failure of our lives, when we’re trying to reinvent them, and the possibilities for women, especially, to make new choices? The play is sympathetic to both women’s perspectives, and lets the audience carefully contemplate what might be gained or lost from our own viewpoints and investments.

Treem refuses to moralize against either character. Zelda, played with intensity and humor by the terrific Ruehl, is a firebrand, full of articulate ideas and helpful career advice for Rachel, which she delivers with the passion and generosity of a professor mentoring a promising young student. Ruehl persuades the audience, if not the obstinate Rachel, that Zelda has a very nice life, full of lovers (of both sexes, since, she notes, she could never resist experimenting) and travel and success.

Zelda is the kind of driven woman professor whom students hope will shine the light of her attention on their work. In Treem’s vision of the character, Zelda has mentored other women, one of whom becomes Rachel’s nemesis at the important conference. Zelda also has women colleagues to whom she turns for advice and consultation about her (and about Rachel’s) research. Treem puts Zelda squarely in the center of a lively intellectual field in which she wields authority but is open to challenge and change.

Unlike, for example, the women professors in either Margaret Edson’s Wit or Wendy Wasserstein’sThird, Zelda is surrounded by peers who offer fertile intellectual and professional sustenance. Unlike so many women academics portrayed on stage and screen, Zelda isn’t isolated by her power, but centered in community and willing to be displaced by new ideas she knows will come to correct her own—even (or especially) if they come from her own daughter. As such, Zelda is a real step forward for women characters in contemporary American theatre.

Rachel is less appealing, in a conventional sense, but her bristling edginess is justified by her anger at being given up for adoption. Treem layers the character with complicated motivations and impulses, so that she wants to walk out on Zelda, to inflict some of the hurt she’s suffered, but also needs to impress the woman whom she occasionally slips and calls her mother (to Zelda’s delight). Rachel wants to believe she’s different from Zelda, but ironically, they’re very much the same, even if, according to the rules of evolutionary biology by which they both live, they’re different generations of the same genes and influenced by a different set of historical exigencies.

I disagree with Charles Isherwood’s rather uncharitable New York Times review of Rachel as truculent and irritating, a whiny child intent on getting her way. Instead, I find the character to be Treem’s deft representation of what some commentators call “third wave feminism,” a brand of political identification formed in reaction to second wave feminism’s ambitions and analyses. Where second wavers of Zelda’s generation were often willing to forego conventional relationships and were often eager to re-theorize family of all kinds, third wavers like Rachel insist that these social structures can be rehabilitated from within.

Zelda, for example, sees love as a trap—in fact, in one of the play’s best laugh lines, she defines it as “stress”—for which she isn’t willing to compromise the work that sustains her. But Rachel can’t imagine her life without Dean, even though he’s quick to leave her when she takes Zelda’s advice and presents at the conference alone. Unlike Isherwood, I think Treem gives the characters’ arguments equal weight, and doesn’t end their debate with a too-pat solution. Rachel is both more like Zelda than she thinks and is indeed someone different, made from the impulses of a generation who could afford to reject the more stringent ideology of women Rachel dismisses as “you feminists.”

That the play takes a sudden turn in its final moments doesn’t come as a surprise so much as it raises the stakes for the future of Zelda and Rachel’s relationship. I won’t reveal that development here, except to say that the signs of this outcome have been carefully posted by Treem throughout the play. The ending in fact solidifies and makes even more coherent and committed Zelda’s life choices, and Ruehl’s performance avoids sentimentality or easy bids for empathy.

Rachel, too, eludes the clichés awaiting her character had she been drawn by a playwright less astute than Treem. Rous’s performance gets Rachel’s ambivalences exactly right, tracking her character’s dramatic mood shifts and infusing them with thought as well as feeling. Rous presents a carefully wrought performance that matches Ruehl’s moment by moment.

This engrossing production compels from beginning to end. Daniel Ostling’s set is beautifully designed and built. He fills Zelda’s office with both gravitas and chaos, and creates a down-at-the-heels bar in which the women meet in the second act with such detail and authenticity you can practically smell the stale beer and cigarette smoke.

Emily Mann’s direction is unobtrusive and confident. She paces the women’s encounters so that they move quickly and so that the scientific information they share remains fascinating. At the same time, she shades each scene with suspense and a ruminative quality that highlights the script’s emotional undertones.

The How and the Why ends with Zelda’s admonishment that we keep ourselves off the edge of despair by pushing always onward. She suggests that we do our work not because it’s a noble sacrifice but because it creates us and recreates us, and allows us to change ourselves, one another, and the course of history.

Treem brings us to this finale after two absorbing hours with two finely formed, interesting, smart, and captivating women of two different generations. That Treem, Mann, and their collaborators have taken us along on their journey so masterfully is a very rare achievement indeed for women in and at the theatre.

See this production of this play. It runs at McCarter through February 13th.

The Feminist Spectator

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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