The Return of the Five Lesbian Brothers

Oedipus at Palm Springs
Five Lesbian Brothers
New York Theatre Workshop
E. 4th St., Manhattan
Performance: Saturday, August 20, 2005
Run: July 20 – August 28, 2005

I first saw the Five Lesbian Brothers perform when they were a fledgingly troupe of irreverent satirists working out of the legendary WOW Café in New York’s East Village in the early 80s.Voyage to Lesbos, their first production, was a romp through the possibilities of sexuality and desire that raced, in a short hour or so, through permutations of partnering and sex that at that time the dominant strands of feminism refused to imagine. Even their oxymoronic name, in the early 80s, signaled their determination to fly in the face of certain feminist strictures about sexual expression. At a time when Women Against Pornography offered tours of porn shops in Time Square to give women a firsthand experience of the degradation of what they saw as woman-hating sex practices, and when Andrea Dworkin inveighed against heterosexual sex as inevitably a form of rape, the Brothers stormed the stage at WOW with outlandish enactments of the pleasure of penetration, of non-monogamy, of the zany pleasures of a revolving door of sexual partners for whom no desire was off the map politically or physically.

This, after all, was theatre. In their performances—loosely structured, fantastically plotted with no regard for cause and effect or the niceties of plot or character, concerned only with borrowing from popular culture outrageous, unheard of possibilities for lesbian desire, long before “queer” entered the lexicon as an identity or a sexual practice—the Brothers imagined a rather Foucauldian world (although they’d laugh at the reference to theory) in which bodies and pleasure found each other without regard to gender, feminist or dominant politics, or theatrical conventions. They used performance at its outer limits to test the possibilities of reimagining women’s desire and to explore how to tell that story to women who elsewhere were being dissuaded from acknowledging the range of their sexual potential.

Collective Process

The Brothers—Mo Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibbell, Peg Healy, and Lisa Kron—have always generated their work collectively which, despite their queer-inflected name and performance practices, has always attached them to the earliest feminist performance traditions. In the 70s, when “women’s theatre” was just making its mark, collectives like It’s Alright to be a Woman Theatre used performance to make political and ideological claims against the social oppressions of dominant culture. Charlotte Canning’s book, Feminist Theaters in the USA, documents many early groups organized according to the moment’s political beliefs in democratic process, often in response to the more autocratic practices of the experimental and avant-garde theatres of the 60s run by men who lorded their power over acting collectives with a kind of monocular vision.

The feminist collectives intended to redistribute the power of creating performance, and to empower their audiences, too, to become co-creators of meaning. Many of these groups discarded conventional narrative in favor of direct address and confessional story-telling designed to elicit identification from women presumed to share certain experiences. While the Brothers never indulged in personal confession, their work did break taboo by enacting, live in performance, a level of sexual fantasy that even certain strands of feminism (particularly the gender essentializing, cultural feminist variety) were then asking women to repress. Their collective authorship somehow further authorized their ribald, outrageous work, almost as if the fact that five women engaged the freedom to imagine the unimaginable made it that much easier for spectators to join in the fun.

Radical Sex Satires

Brave Smiles and The Secretaries, the next era of the Brothers’ work, embedded their sex radicalism in satires that called out the absurdity of how dominant culture represented lesbians. Smiles roamed through the landscape of lesbian stereotypes, ridiculing with rapier wit how lesbians died alone, seduced young girls, lived lives of perversion, leered at incarcerated women as prison guards, and otherwise lurked around the edges of culture as a dark, twisted, vile influence. Smiles was early women’s music pioneer Meg Christian’s “Leaping Lesbians” come to life, the enactment of every stereotype ever ascribed to dykes by Euro-American culture. By holding them up for public scrutiny, by embodying them and having fun with them, instead of wallowing in the ways they oppress us, Smiles won that particular culture skirmish in the war against mainstream stereotyping and its explicit discriminations.

The play’s production at New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW), an Off Broadway house down E. 4th Street from WOW, opened new audiences for the Brothers. Where WOW let them hone their critique and their unique style before an audience of mostly women and mostly lesbians that ranged from supporters to admirers to rabid fans, the NYTW crowd included a subscription audience of more conventional white middle-class New Yorkers, and a more sophisticated collection of theatre-goers whose politics could be presumed as liberal but not necessarily sex radical. That the play succeeded in that setting scored a coup for feminist and lesbian theatre, anticipating a wider, deeper reach into the very culture that propagated many of the stereotypes Smiles lampooned in the first place.

The Secretaries continued the Brothers’ winning streak, offering an even more incisive, theatrically honed critique of lesbian and feminist caricatures. This play, with an actual, developed plot and actual characters, challenged the deeply embedded stereotype of the man-hating lesbian (and implicitly the feminist) by playing it to the hilt. The secretaries of the title work together at a lumber mill where every month, timed to their simultaneous menstrual cycles, the women enact the ritual execution of a man, not because, as the script notes, the man is “bad, but because we’re bad.” The Secretaries maintained the Brothers’ attachment to parody as their mode du jour—the outsiders’ eye worked for them, and the larger-than-life characters let them continue to perform in their out-sized, nearly vaudevillian style.

While in Voyage to Lesbos and Brave Smiles, the Brothers performed in a kind of post-modern revue-style format, actual, sustained characters propelled The Secretaries through a more coherent plot. Lisa Kron played a scattered, over-sized typist who can’t maintain the rigors of the Slim Fast diet the secretaries are sworn to follow, and nearly steals the show with her hilarious scenes of giving in to her hunger. Peg Healy enacted the slickly, sickly elegant dominatrix office manager, who seduces all the girls and initiates them into the cult of secretarial blood pooling. Babs Davy won laughs with her clueless innocent who goes blithely along for the ride, and Dominique Dibbell played the narrator, a stand-up woman who joins the pool and unwittingly finds herself entangled in the ritualistic cult. Moe Angelos was the only performer double-cast, playing an earnest man who falls in love with one of the women as well as a mousy, rule-abiding secretary. Dibbell’s character’s movement from conventional to maniacal frames the play, and her retrospective narration sets its satirically elegiac tone.

Performing at New York Theatre Workshop

At New York Theatre Workshop, The Secretaries was a hit, garnering the Brothers’ a review in theNew York Times and a solid run. The Workshop’s program took pains to tell its subscribers that the play was meant to be funny; the pedagogical component of the program note seemed designed to thwart audience response that might incline heterosexual men, for instance, to walk huffily up the aisles a couple of scenes in. The program’s caveats seemed to me at the time their own form of discrimination—why the need to teach people about parody when it was being wielded, finally, by lesbians? But the production’s success secured the Brothers’ new artistic home at NYTW, where they each remain part of the Usual Suspects, its resident community of artists.

The Brothers’ last full-length piece, Brides of the Moon, produced at NYTW in the late 90s, was clearly budgeted to hit big, with a larger but cumbersome set that stretched the width of the theatre’s very large proscenium stage and outsized costumes that spelled out the Brothers’ satiric intent in a more obvious way than usual. Although the Brothers historically directed themselves, NYTW imported director Molly Smith, then on her way from her artistic directorship of Perseverance Theatre in Alaska, where she’d nurtured lesbian playwright Paula Vogel’s work, to assume the helm of Arena Stage, one of the country’s most influential, visible regional theatres. NYTW must have presumed Smith could translate the Brothers’ vision into an ever more mainstream style.

Brides, however, didn’t succeed artistically or at the box office. The Brothers’ sharp eye for critique seemed lost in the shuffle of the set, the props, and the costumes. The convoluted sci-fi story included space travel, fantasy, the mixing of terrestrial and extraterrestrial worlds, a typical Brothers’ mélange. But instead of assuming the audience with its non-sequiturs and insanity, the production somehow didn’t succeed theatrically or politically. The Brothers’ over-the-top sex radicalism and their insights into the use and abuse of lesbians in popular culture seemed derailed, over-produced, and misunderstood, as though the expectations of the venue and of their previous two successes had toppled them under its weight.

Solo Performance on Hiatus

Bitter at the play’s poor reception, the Brothers stopped performing together. Lisa Kron, meanwhile, who’d already had some success as a solo performer, took the break from collective work to generate two important shows of her own. Kron first performed 2.5 Minute Ride, an eloquent evocation of her family’s raucous visit to an Ohio amusement park and her return with her father to Auschwitz, from which he had survived World War II. The play premièred to strong reviews at the Public Theatre, which allowed Kron to tour the regional theatre circuit performing the piece to excellent reviews across the country.

The Public also produced Kron’s next piece, Well—she wryly calls it a “solo performance with some other people in it”—which also ran to excellent reviews. The play moved Kron out of a wry self-deprecating mode of self-presentation into a more humane, wistful, insightful self-understanding, one that allowed her to investigate, by extrapolation, relationships between blacks and Jews in urban Detroit in the 1960s, her relationship with her eccentric mother, and her own precarious status as a woman with a then-chronic illness. The lovely piece marked a newly sophisticated vision; she seemed to settle into her skin, to inhabit her powerful presence as a performer to propel a social vision deeply rooted in the personal but also finely honed as humanist in the most generative, radical way. Other Brothers’ also generated solo performances and other work in theatre, television, and film while the group took what become a seven year hiatus from working together.

Returning to the Fold for Oedipus

The highly anticipated Oedipus at Palm Springs marks their first collaboration since Brides. Produced once again by New York Theatre Workshop, the production is even more conventionally produced, finalizing the Brothers’ departure from their original ad hoc, poor theatre style. A California white stucco resort accented in shades of aqua and pink fills the wide proscenium stage for Oedipus, built in levels that begin far upstage with two large, square, barn-like doors that open onto steps down into what looks like a public square, even though the resort is a private lesbian haven. A round blue pool sits in its center, flanked by raised playing areas on either side that serve as hotel rooms and suggest bathrooms behind louvered pink doors. Fake palm trees decorate the set, which is bathed in a very warm amber light, suggesting the colors and heat of the Palm Springs setting.

The realistic set suggests straight away a change from the Brothers’ more typical absurdist or fantastical performances, even while its height, its doors, its steps, and its palm trees evoke an updated, California-inspired version of the setting for classic Greek plays. But the set is pretty much all that’s reminiscent of Greek drama, until the second half of the play, when what starts as a lesbian sex comedy evolves into a lesbian melodrama derivative of the Oedipus story. This concoction, rather than complementing the Brothers’ lunatic raunchiness, as their old work once did, becomes simply confusing when the play breaks stride and heads into its rewriting of the Oedipal tale.

The Story

The play concerns two lesbian couples who’ve arrived to share the weekend at the resort, run by a mysterious blind woman named Joni (Babs Davy), who’s given to odd, portentous pronouncements. Obviously the Tiresias character, Davy plays this woman with a dead-pan, straight-backed propriety heightened to absurdity by the long feathered braid that hangs from her otherwise shorn steel gray hair, and by the clunky southwestern jewelry that hangs from her neck. When the play opens, Davy stands naked except for her necklace and something that looks like a lesbian version of a carpenter’s belt slung around her waist. When the resort’s doorbell rings, she resentfully pulls on a sleeveless Indian-print cotton dress and lets in the women whose roiling relationships propel the play.

Con (Lisa Kron) and Fran (Mo Angelos) are a couple whose son Basil is now three-years-old. Since his birth, they’ve suffered from the “lesbian bed-death” said to hound long-term relationships, and Con, the non-biological mother of the pair, is desperate for sex. When their friends Prin (Dominique Dibbell) and Terri (Peg Healy) arrive, Con’s resentments about Fran’s lack of sexual interest (she says it’s hard to sexualize her breasts, now that they’re a source of food) boil over when the other couple flaunts their intensely physical attraction to each other. Prin is an inveterate butch, whose old friend Fran has surprised and to some extent disappointed her with her new-found investment in motherhood.

Dibbell plays Prin with an outsized swagger that offers the production’s most stylized, most old-fashioned Brothers’ style performance. Her close-cropped hair, now salted with gray, signals her female masculinity, and she stands back on her heels, making bold, cutting gestures with her hands and smoking cigarettes with the slanted eyes of a James Dean wannabe. Dibbell pulls off this butch impersonation very nicely, even though in earlier Brothers productions, she’s played the femme (for instance, she played the newest secretary around whom the plot revolves in The Secretaries, carrying off with seductive aplomb the innocent scatterbrain who evolves into a hardened member of the man-killing cult).

Performing Gender

Watching her strut about the resort, I was reminded of how the Brothers’ performances of gender once set masculinity and femininity into high comic relief and at the same time relieved spectators of any need to take gender seriously. But in Oedipus, Dibbell and Davy are the only performers who play the parody of the moment, and within the staunch realism of the other performances, they stand out as peculiar, rather than as the parodic norm. Both win a number of laughs in the play’s first half. Davy is especially wonderful; her brief appearances punctuate and comment on the action, and her zinging one-liners wryly observe the foibles of contemporary lesbian domestic and sexual life. Her Joni character manages to both embody and playfully critique the west coast lesbian penchant for New Age ideology—she’s known for her “key” readings, for which women throw their key rings on a table and Joni reports what she sees.

Joni’s old-fashioned lesbian feminist womanist “womyn’s” culture style contrasts with the couples’ queer lesbian butch/femme inflections. Fran and Prin play the butches in their respective couples (despite Fran’s biological motherhood), who tend to drink more heavily (when Fran finally lets herself indulge) and like to play golf. Con and Terri play femmes who look forward to outlet shopping in Palm Springs. At one point, Fran and Con repudiate butch/femme stylings, which Prin immediately suggests is the cause of their sexual impasse. The funny line comments on the changing sexual styles of generations of lesbians. If the play kept at this kind of social critique, it could be a trenchant lesbian comedy of manners. The necessary elements already structure the play: Prin’s butch queer promiscuity contrasts with the middle-class, bourgeois but comfortable domesticity of lesbian mothers Con and Fran, also set in relief from the intellectual strivings of the slightly younger Terri (who’s finishing a graduate degree), all of which resonate well against the old-fashioned gyn/ecology represented by Joni.

The best parts of Oedipus, in fact, mine this territory. The conflict between motherhood and sexuality provides a fruitful topic for increasingly domesticated white middle-class lesbian couples. Con’s sexual frustration, played with perfect-pitch comic timing by Kron, who’s hysterically funny in an understated, poignant way throughout the play, offers a nice twist on more conventional hetero sex farces. Kron’s scene in the pool, in which she stands in front of the water jets to get off, underlines her impeccable physical comedy talents. That the scene comes shortly after she’s reclined on a lounge chair reading the latest Harry Potter novel makes it only that much more apt.

The Tragic Fall

A good, sophisticated, smart lesbian sex farce would be an excellent play to watch, and Oedipus fits that bill for much of its 90 minutes. But when the play turns toward its namesake’s story to draw its contemporary parallels, it flounders badly, and what had been funny, smart, and charming suddenly becomes heavy-handed and full of perplexing bathos. Prin’s womanizing supposedly ended with her now seven-year relationship with Terri. Her increasing surprise at her own wish for commitment drives much of the second half, as Prin prepares to present Terri with a ring at the birthday celebration to which the play builds. Terri’s birthday, though, and the recent death of her adoptive mother, prompts her to wonder about the identity of her birth mother. When Fran and Con provide the woman’s name as Terri’s birthday present, the plot goes into overdrive to expose and then unravel its Oedipal foundation.

It turns out that although the Uber-butch Prin only had sex with a man once, when she was fifteen, that union produced a child whom she gave up for adoption, and that child turns out to be Terri, the woman with whom she’s been having very hot (and in the production, explicit) sex for the last seven years. When Prin realizes that she’s had sex with her daughter, instead of hanging on to its comic beginnings and parodying the excesses of the incest taboo, Oedipus capitulates to it completely, leaving Prin reviling herself and her desires. Although she doesn’t gouge out her eyes, she does yell and scream and, at the height of her grieving self-immolation, throw herself into the pool, where Joni fishes her out, intact, the next morning.

Dibbell, who does a terrific job with the swashbuckling bravado of Prin’s earlier, heavy drinking, heavy petting, heavy smoking scenes, can’t quite bring off the pathos of Prin’s reaction to the revelation. And suddenly, the other Brothers tip-toe around her tragedy, reappearing dressed in flowing white costumes and gazing at her with remote sadness. The Brothers might intend to turn the other characters into a kind of Greek chorus that now witnesses Prin’s righteous ruin. But after an hour of mostly comedy, the genre bending is confusing and unsatisfying.

Exiling the Butch

I was also surprised by the Brothers’ willingness to accede to the incest taboo as the final frontier of sexual transgression, after their many infamous years of casting off all the other strictures on sexual relating and expression. Prin’s relationship with Terri seems strong, clear, and highly charged sexually; why force it to end in shame and sorrow simply because Prin turns out to be Terri’s biological mother? Under the Brothers’ old logic, this would be a minor detail. Here, it’s not only a deal breaker, but it’s horrible, sinful, enough to leave Prin alone, degraded and exiled from her lesbian community, a state to which the Brothers bring no irony and no comment.

Prin becomes another in a long line of butch lesbian characters in theatre punished for their desires and left solitary and grieving. She joins Lil, in Jane Chambers’ early lesbian drama Last Summer at Bluefish Cove; the eponymous character in The Killing of Sister George; Martha, in The Children’s Hour; more recently Shane, on TV’s The L Word; and a host of other hard-drinking, promiscuous butch lesbian characters whose sexual practices are moralized against while they’re discarded from the lesbian domestic community like so much riff raff.

I’m surprised to find the Brothers participating in this old tradition. How could they of the radical parodies, of the wild sexual imaginings, of the anti-politically correct feminism produce a play in which the lesbian mothers do finally have sex again and ride off happily into the normalized sunset while the butch stands alone? How could they not, at the end, step back to make fun of the meanings they seem to be proposing here?

Naked Girls Onstage

Perhaps the Brothers sense that the play promotes an ideological agenda about which they feel uneasy, because they stock it with nude scenes and sexual interactions that seem intended to bear the burden of taboo-breaking radicalism. But it’s no longer very radical to be naked on stage. Gay men have been naked in performance for years, happily offering predominantly gay male audiences ample chances to compare their penises. Kathleen Chalfant stood naked at the end of Wit; downtown performance artists to characters in the most mainstream dramas on Broadway (Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de LuneTake Me Out, and many more) take their clothes off so frequently that even the most blue-haired spectators barely bat an eye.

But then again, the Brothers are middle-aged white lesbians, and American theatre has seen few of those onstage, clothed or not. At first, I was moved by their choice to put their far-from-flawless bodies on view center stage. I found their vulnerability charming and wistfully measured their aging against my own. But ultimately, as a political statement, their nudity seems no more radical than the Dove beauty ads that boast “normal” female models in their underwear instead of supermodels. The Brothers’ gesture seems empty, even when the plot explains the nudity, as when the performers disrobe to tumble into bed with each other.

Unfortunately, too, the couples share little chemistry as lovers. The numerous sex scenes seem forced, too carefully simulated, and awkwardly self-conscious. They show too much, do too much, and rob the spectator of the pleasure of imagining by giving us everything (more than) we need to see. The sex scenes made me long for the days when the Brothers could heat up a theatre just by being on stage, by suggesting hot sex through farcical relating and how they played to and seduced the audience. The strained sex in Oedipus felt hollow, a Pyrrhic victory over the now disarmed feminist sex police and a dominant culture that still can’t quite see lesbians at all. Showing them naked, in this play, doesn’t really ameliorate that invisibility.

Emissaries to a Wider World

Oedipus at Palm Springs left me wondering what the Brothers wanted the audience to think and feel. Do the Brothers want us to think that lesbian motherhood (incest, of course, excepted) and domesticity should be our gold standards, that love should always trump sex, that intimacy (as Con tells Prin self-righteously) doesn’t mean paying for a lap dance? Does it want us to believe that the stories of our domestic lives—how often we have sex, how many sexual partners we’ve had, how much we shop and play golf—are more important than our civic lives and what we might imagine outside the constraints of what’s finally a surprisingly heteronormative world view played with lesbian themes? Should we admire the hermetic relationships among these women, which never reference the larger world? Should we see Oedipus at Palm Springs as the answer to the riddle of lesbian identity and sex practices at the beginning of the 21st century? Should we laugh at the foibles of lesbian mothers and cry at the impossibility of a butch living on the edge as an outlaw? I’m left to wonder.

The Brothers have long been bitter that gay men writing for performance in a similar comic vein have achieved so much more mainstream success. After all, most of the five Brothers support themselves with day jobs, rather than making their livelihood from theatre. Ironically, the tickets for Oedipus at NYTW cost $60, available on-line or by phone through Telecharge. At the WOW Café in the early 80s, audiences used to stand in line in the stairwell leading up to the theatre, waiting to pay their five dollars at a jerry-rigged box office right outside the room. The Brothers’ ascendance up the scale of New York theatre production marks their rightful success, but watchingOedipus, I missed the overwhelming lesbian audiences’ energy that used to carry the Brothers’ performances along.

The spectators who attended the night I saw the show were, at a glance, predominantly heterosexual and white. The mainstreaming of lesbian performance is important and necessary; it’s important that those spectators witnessed those naked middle-aged lesbian bodies pretending to have sex. But perhaps the dulled edge of this production comes from its address to just that kind of NYTW audience, instead of the poorer lesbians of a decade or two ago who understood the Brothers’ radicalism, needed to see them perform their parodies, and loved them enough to make anything they did at WOW necessary and pleasurable. Times have changed and part of my response might be my own nostalgia for a troupe lesbians could call “ours,” a company we knew was talking to us. I’m glad that the Brothers are now emissaries to a larger audience; I’m proud that they represent us in the world.

In fact, I’d love to see the Brothers bring their wit and their wisdom, their insight and their wry knowingness, to a full-out lesbian comedy or drama or “dramedy” about relationships. I know I haven’t seen enough of those. But Oedipus seems caught between the eras of their work, teetering between the old parody and a new striving for depth and feeling that isn’t served by the old style. The play’s realism makes it seem silly in just those moments when a more post-modern, less linear, more playful style might have done much more (in the sex scenes, for instance). As a result, Oedipusloses a poignant tenderness and real sorrow about the complications of lesbian relationships that it might have mustered.

The Brothers certainly deserve to experiment with performance genres and with representations of lesbians, for the largest possible audiences, fully funded and supported. They certainly deserve the chance to make mistakes, to try things that might not work, theatrically or politically. I’ll always be a fan and I was moved and delighted to see them together again. But I left Oedipus at Palm Springswondering if the Brothers’ desire to gain widespread recognition forces the kind of compromises they make in this play, where the character who once would have been the glorified star of a Brothers production remains alone at the end, loveless and reviled for sins she didn’t even know she’d committed, sins that she—and the Brothers—can no longer reimagine as blessings.

5 thoughts on “The Return of the Five Lesbian Brothers

  1. Since seeing the Brothers’ show a few weeks ago, I’ve grumbled to friends and colleagues about the absence of any serious analysis of the play from a feminist/lesbian critical perspective. Needless to say, the usual New York theatre critics (still an overwhelmingly male bunch) offer no such viewpoint. Thanks for filling the void and adding a much-needed voice to the discussion. I look forward to reading more of your blog in the future!

  2. I have a different point-of-view on the play, but I want to comment on only one aspect of this undeniably detailed and smart analysis: what about the femme? When you stress that the rather originary butch is left on her own, and that’s not original (it isn’t,) are you forgetting the position that Terri occupies in the play? The never-been-wanted–always-been-left? True, Con and Fran follow her out the door at the end of the play, but the text of the play indicates that she, more than Prin, is left alone. Prin makes certain choices. Terri suffers as a result of choices that have been made about her. I find in feminist criticism that regarding lesbian theories the butch always stands out, but the femme stands outside waiting to be acknowledged.

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