Recently, I was reviewing the show Age of Beauty, written and directed by Stuart Bousel, at San Francisco’s Exit Theatre. The show is a series of conversations — there’s no blocking, and characters remain seated at a table throughout each scene — all between young women who were close as youngsters in Tucson. Watching it, I felt myself constantly asking if the characters adhered to certain standards whose fairness I now question: Does she talk about her ex-boyfriend too much, as if he’s the only thing worth talking about? Do her rejoinders sound laugh track ready? More generally: Is she complex? Authentic?
These are not unreasonable questions to ask, of course, but what we mean when we talk about complexity and authenticity in young female characters is shaped by the broader discussion about gender parity going on in American theater right now. That discussion tends to focus on the artists who create plays, asking questions about the percentage of produced plays that were written by women or the percentage of theater leaders who are women.
But inextricably tied to those questions, of course, is a question about the content of those plays: Do their female characters represent as wide a range of the human experience as their males? In a world in which we actually have to ask this question, to make your young female characters complex and authentic is not just important artistic practice; it’s important political practice.
This makes me feel as if there is a lot at stake with each new female character whom I might evaluate as part of a review, that each one exists not in a vacuum but either furthers or hinders a broader political effort I care deeply about. Critics are supposed to be objective, to approach a work with no agenda, but in this case, I have one. Arguably this agenda is no different from wanting a work to be good; an authentic, complex female character (usually) serves art better than a hackneyed one does. It’s impossible to separate one’s politics from one’s aesthetics (aesthetics are never pure!), but sometimes I worry that my politics have too much control over my critical criteria. When I’m dissecting every line a young female character speaks (I focus on young women both because I identify with them and because they seem more vulnerable to stereotyping) for what it says about women in the American theater, am I being rigorous or ruthless?
The Fantasy Club by Rachel Bublitz, an All Terrain Theater production which I saw shortly after Age of Beauty, provoked similar questions for me. The play, about a stifled housewife, Frances (Siobhan Marie Doherty), her easygoing but overworked husband Max (Tavis Kammet), and her down-on-her-luck best friend Samantha (Claire Rice), is riddled with logical shortcuts. Frances is obsessed with physical safety, sans explanation, in order to justify what would otherwise have been a deus ex machina of an ending (a bullet proof vest is involved).
Additionally, Frances’s high school crush Jacob (Rob Dario) is still the object of her fantasy, which she details in erotic poems that she wants to publish, all despite the fact that she hasn’t seen him in at least a decade. Coincidentally, Samantha happens to run into him and bring him to dinner, and he happens to aggressively reciprocate Frances’s affections. More tastelessly, Jacob turns out to be a psychopath, and he subjects Frances and the audience to a slimy, drawn-out sex scene that’s rape by any definition but the most technical, but that also trivializes that ghastly crime. Finally, Frances doesn’t even bring up what’s really bothering her about her marriage, the play’s supposed mainspring—that doing all the family’s chores makes her feel like she’s her husband’s servant—until the last scene. After that revelation, all is magically resolved, as if readying the studio audience for their applause.
The directing, by Tracy Held Potter, is also lacking. One of the play’s themes is that everyone has weird sexual fantasies, often involving a desirer’s entire social group. If the fantasies themselves are a hoot (and they’d better be), Potter makes transitions into and out of them awkward, the colored lights dropping and the characters suddenly back to their non-fantastical selves without any directorial commentary on what just happened. If the whole play were of this tone, the play could be a delightfully campy romp; as interludes, they have no reason to exist other than to lend each scene a vague sexual charge.
Frances, what’s more, is an unlikable character. Throughout the play she is blithely unaffected by her loved ones even as they’re in pain, and in Doherty’s broad rendering, she’s a comic type: the slightly loopy, conniving housewife that dates back to I Love Lucy. Claire Rice played Samantha with much more nuance and naturalism; it was as if the two performers were in different productions. She made Samantha likable, but in the way that Miranda on Sex and the City was likable — she was wry and grumpy and self-deprecating and vulnerable and flawed, doing the kinds of things that “real women” do: hiding how smart and successful they are, eating cake out of the trash can. Samantha, too, has her pathetic moments, hitting on Jacob with too much forwardness, touching his arm at the wrong time, and when we know she doesn’t have a chance.
For a long time, I thought a good character in theater was simply one who has the capacity to surprise you, to challenge you, to make you think; who has compelling virtues and vices and who doesn’t reveal all her sides at once; who inspires you to dream your own scenarios for her and wonder how she’d act. All this is certainly a part of what makes a good character — but good television characters can also do these things.
Now I think that there’s a separate quality that distinguishes good theatrical characters, that there’s a reason that a character like Miranda or Samantha works well only on television. In that medium, we have a lot of time to get to know characters, and we take pleasure in seeing them do slightly different versions of the same thing over and over again. It’s familiar. It’s comforting. These characters almost never change, and when they do, they change extremely gradually. Characters in theater, by contrast, have to show us who they are very quickly and then change very quickly (relative to television, at least). They must change for the sake of making the play go somewhere and bringing it to a meaningful conclusion.
What Every Girl Should Know, now in its Bay Area debut at Impact Theatre under Tracy Ward’s direction, doesn’t succeed in every aspect, but it at least offers female characters who exceed the grasp of television. Lucy (Arisa Bega), Anne (Abigail Edber), Theresa (Carlye Pollack) and Joan (Elissa Beth Stebbins) are young women in a Catholic home for deviants during World War I. While they are faithful Catholics, in their own way — covering the eyes of pictures of saints when they decide to misbehave, sniffing out potential Protestants (demon spies in their ranks!) like bloodhounds — they pray most ardently to saints of their own making: their own bodily pleasure and Margaret Sanger.
At rise we hear in darkness the creak and squeak of old bed frames and mattress springs—the telltale signs of secret late-night pleasures. Lucy, Anne and Theresa keep track of their masturbating records in a log book; when they roughhouse, they grab each other’s boobs and butts. This image of women—in their pajamas, playing with one another—is so often presented as the dirty slumber party of male fantasy, but this work, by playwright Monica Byrne, reclaims that kind of play as born of the kind of intimacy that’s not restricted by societal norms but that writes its own rules.
It’s easy to see how in a lesser playwright’s hands these four young women could have been boilerplate. Lucy is the prudish one whose terror of the devil is raw and who balks at any mention of the body parts she’s trying to pleasure. But if she’s limited by dogma, she’s wild and free in her storytelling imagination, the creative passion behind the writing of the group’s own religious myth. Anne is a kind of character women almost never get to play—rough and gruff and quick to anger, slow to immerse herself in the group’s prayers to their shrine to Sanger (their shrine to themselves), but with a sense of humor that’s just as wild as the stories Lucy tells. When she’s dared to steal a book and bring it back to the group’s dorm, she doesn’t just reenter the room with it; she lunges in and pretends to give heaving, bloody birth to it.
Theresa could simply be the one who always thinks about sex—getting caught sitting on the face of a married man is what got her sent to this sterile place in the first place—but especially in Pollack’s thoughtful portrayal, Theresa takes deep, mischievous joy in a life that could easily be seen as small and sad. Her blazing eyes are always searching for the next joke or the next delight. And Joan, as the newbie and the prophet of the good word of Margaret Sanger, is at first joyless%