In a city with so many millions of people, it is amazing how many bodies we see and come into contact with each day. Now please join me for a thought experiment: what would it be like if everyone you passed on the street was stark naked? Seeing naked female bodies happens a great deal in theatre, but it is often in entirely gratuitous scenes, with flattering lighting, adhering to some sort of fetishized concept of female sensuality.
As I watched the performers in Young Jean Lee's new piece UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW move across the stage, I was struck by what can be seen when this frame is alternately minimized and maximized. In other words, when there are no words, or costumes, or sets, how do we see these women on stage?
The answer is perhaps surprising. First of all, Lee informs us in the program note that not all of the performers identify as female. The note goes on to say that though the collaborators all have different ideas about what feminism is, they all had an interest in expressing a "more fluid sense of gender." Indeed, each performer's body steps in, out, and around specific and recognizable categories of people.
In that sense, the piece had a momentary connection with Sarah Ruhl's Orlando, where the lead character -- who is male, but is played by a woman -- changes genders in the middle of the play. This sex change is revealed by disrobing Orlando, which results (or should result) in an oddly disorienting moment where the character truly does look like their male body has been replaced by a female one.
The nudity in UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW is used in a similarly subversive way. As the actors move through their various identities, their nude bodies alternate between working with and against them. I apologize for the vagueness, but I am actively trying not to graft my own interpretation onto a show that has worked so conscientiously against creating fixed meanings.
I was about to apologize for the use of so much theoretical language, but I actually think discussing this show on a theoretical level is unavoidable. With the absence of almost any words, what inhabit and interact on stage are a series of ideas: those of the creative team, the performers, and the audience members themselves. As scholar Rebecca Schneider points out in her book The Explicit Body, every time a female body comes into view, she brings along a series of inseparable historical and political connotations. In other words, the female body, expanded in definition as it is in the context of this show, is already a complicated concept in and of itself.
As the show progresses, individual moments are sometimes purposefully ironic and sometimes brutally honest, leaving the audience member to decide where one of these moods (or modes) ends and the other begins. Indeed, one of the great successes of this piece is the way in which it draws one's own suppositions out of oneself. As UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW unfolds before you, it is constantly approaching your boundaries. Each scene twists and turns in such a way that it causes you to identify and challenge your own assumptions.
Much of this is due to to the performances of Becca Blackwell, World Famous *BOB*, Amelia Zirin-Brown (aka Lady Rizo), Hilary Clark, Katy Pyle, and Regina Rocke, who give their all on stage. The collaborative nature of the project is obvious in its fluid structure, that allows each performer to have moments of individual focus in between the group interactions. Though there are far too many fantastic moments of performance to list here, keep an eye out for the impressive miming talent of Amelia Zirin-Brown (aka Lady Rizo).
One of the things that first drew me in to my interest in stage directions is the idea that someone (the playwright) had written words that were translated onto a silent body (the performer). As the bodies on stage perform a silent script of actions, audience members interpret some sort of meaning from them. I think that this is simply incredible when you really think about it, and UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW is a single, extended proof of how powerful silent acting and movement is.
In case you haven't guessed, this show is full of paradoxes and juxtapositions of the best kind. Having said that, it is (hopefully) going to cause you to think. If you are in the mood to sit back and have a light night at the theatre, this is not your show. This piece is not universal, but I honestly think that it has a great deal to say to those who are willing to listen, watch, and think. I left with a whirl of ideas in my head and a smile on my face.