Some have described the tragedy of Spain's Queen Juana of Castile (November 6, 1479-April 12, 1555) as the story of a 16-year-old bride so infatuated with her betrothed, Philip the Handsome, Duke of Burgundy, that she became a fool for love. Married on October 20, 1496, she bore him six children. Her husband ascended to the throne in 1506 but died the following year. Thought to be mentally ill, Juana was condemned by her son, Charles, to spend the rest of her life in the Convent of Santa Clara in Tordesillas, Castilea, where she died on Good Friday at the age of 75.
On June 3, 1979, a new opera entitled La Loca (which had been composed as a vehicle for Beverly Sills by Gian-Carlo Menotti) received its world premiere from the San Diego Opera. In 2001, Vicente Aranda's film, Juana La Loca, was nominated for 12 Goya awards, received three, and was released in the United States as Mad Love.
From Margaret Mitchell to Martha Mitchell, feisty daughters of the South have found a place in American culture. Although some of Tennessee Williams's heroines (Amanda Wingfield in 1944's The Glass Menagerie, Blanche DuBois in 1947's A Streetcar Named Desire, Alma Winemiller in 1948's Summer and Smoke, Serafina Delle Rose in 1951's The Rose Tattoo, and Maggie in 1955's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) have become landmarks of the American theatre, southern women were warmly welcomed with open arms by audiences during the 1980s.
- Beth Henley's first play, Crimes of the Heart, was set in the small town of Hazlehurst, Mississippi. Nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play, it won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (making Henley the first woman in 23 years to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama). After Henley adapted her play for the silver screen, the film version was nominated for the 1987 Golden Globe Award for Best Film (Musical or Comedy).
To what did these characters owe their special appeal? As Syche Phillips explains in “The Tradition of Southern Gothic”:
“Southern Gothic writing is often focused on damaged or delusional characters. They are complex and unstable, and the reader may find their morals questionable. Writers in this genre use their characters to highlight the problems with society as they see it, and to examine the ways that people can wittingly or unwittingly harm each other in everyday life. There may still be grotesque themes, and potentially even supernatural elements, but overall it’s more focused on the realistic challenge of questioning the forces within society than on doing battle with some ghostly outsider.”
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For its first production of 2017, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley staged a revival of Crimes of the Heart on a handsome unit set designed by Andrea Bechert with costumes by Cathleen Edwards. Beth Henley's play focuses on the nervous gathering of the highly dysfunctional Magrath clan in the fall of 1974 following the scandalous news that 24-year-old Babe Magrath Botrelle (Lizzie O'Hara) has shot her abusive husband, Zackery, in the stomach.
The Magrath sisters have had their fair share of tragedy. After their father abandoned the family, their mother hung herself (and her cat) in the basement. As a result, the girls were primarily raised by their grandfather, who is now in failing health. The oldest sister, Lenny (Therese Plaehn), has devotedly been taking care of 'Old Granddaddy" while on a crash course toward spinsterhood.
Although each of the three Magrath sisters has committed a so-called "crime of the heart," Babe is the only one to have actually fired a weapon in the process. Her reason? She just didn't like the way Zackery looked at her (in true Southern fashion, after shooting him she stopped to make herself a glass of lemonade and asked her wounded husband if he wanted one, too).
Lenny's social clumsiness and self-consciousness (combined with her obsession over having a shriveled ovary) have made it difficult for her to date men. As the play begins, she is seen desperately trying to stick a candle on a cookie, light it, and make a wish in honor of her 30th birthday. Alone. Her body language betrays a massive sense of indecision and internal conflict. Lenny's day doesn't get any better when she is told that her pet horse was struck by lightning and killed during a recent storm.
Lenny's attempt to make a birthday wish is interrupted by the arrival of her social-climbing neighbor and cousin, Chick Boyle (Laura Jane Bailey), who doesn't hesitate to tell the birthday girl what she thinks about Lenny's alcoholic, scandal-ridden 27-year-old sister, Meg (Sarah Moser). Years ago, Meg had been dating Doc Porter (Timothy Redmond) when she suddenly left town without telling him where she was going. Meg's feeble attempts to become a singer in Hollywood failed miserably. After being humped and dumped by numerous men, she suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a psychiatric ward.
When the corpulent, self-righteous Chick isn't struggling to squeeze her ample thighs into a "petite" sized pair of pantyhose, she is busy advising Lenny why Meg should not show her face in town during Babe's crisis. However, because Meg doesn't have a working phone number, Lenny has already sent her sister a cryptic telegram advising her to come home. Whether or not it pleases Chick, Meg will arrive shortly.
Meg's flirtatious style of narcissism soon becomes obvious, especially with regard to her drinking habits. Delighted to speak to Doc Porter when the telephone rings, she agrees to go out with him even though he's now a married man. When Babe shows up, the sisters get to spend some quality time together. As they commiserate on what it's like to have a "bad day," Babe confesses that before she shot Zackery she had enjoyed hanging out with 15-year-old Willie Jay, a black teenager she's known since he was a boy.
When Babe's lawyer -- the handsome young Barnette Lloyd (Joshua Marx) -- arrives at Old Granddaddy's house, his conflict of interest is quickly revealed. In addition to being infatuated with Babe for the past few years, Barnette is eager to get revenge upon Zackery, who brought great pain upon Barnette's family.
In her program note, director Giovanna Sardelli explains why she feels so strongly about Henley's writing:
"When I was assigned Crimes of the Heart in college, it was one of the first plays I read that spoke to me in a deeply personal way. I had never before experienced a play about three sisters (Chekhov was to be read the following year) and, as I was the middle sister of three, I found something extraordinary in the way the play captured the special dynamic that comes from that particular trio. But it was more than that. It was experiencing a play written by a woman and centered on the lives and stories of women: women who were allowed to be angry, ugly, vengeful, and deeply funny without any obligation to be nice or beautiful. That was a revelation for me to behold as a young college woman toying with independence and feminism. This play, more than any other I experienced in college, led me to pursue a career in theatre."
"In Crimes of the Heart, Henley is exploring how family and society define and confine female characters. She is challenging our assumptions and our easy definitions of good and bad. She is asking us to see that the road to understanding and forgiveness cannot be simple. She’s exploring the absurd experience that is living and, lucky for us, she has a dark but engaging sense of humor; she wants us to laugh and recognize that no one’s pain is the most precious thing about them."
It's easy to understand why Babe and her sisters consider themselves to be "just as sane as anyone else walking down the streets of Hazlehurst." And, without doubt, Sarah Moser, Therese Plaehn, and Lizzie O'Hara bring that form of quirky Southern craziness to life with a sense of shared gusto.
However, the most clearly delineated characters in this production turn out to be Chick Boyle and Barnette Lloyd. It could be that, in the decades since the play's premiere, Henley's black comedy of Southern feminism (in which the three sisters become convulsed with hysterical laughter at the news that Old Granddaddy has slipped into a coma) has been repopulated with cartoon caricatures rather than complex characters. As Robert Kelley (the artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley) notes:
“Perhaps Crimes of the Heart was a turning point for women in the American Theatre. It demonstrated the passion, insight, frustration, and underlying sisterhood that were emerging from the Women’s rights movement. Told boldly and honestly from a female perspective, it attracted large audiences eager to see a woman’s point of view on stage, impressing producers nationwide.”
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Throughout human history, love has been able to exalt, exhilarate, and exasperate women. One need not be a Southern belle to become disoriented, disillusioned, or dishonored as a result of love's potency. From Salome to Scarlett O'Hara, from Ophelia to Lucia di Lammermoor, women have become so distraught and deranged by love as to lose all touch with reality.
An exciting new musical entitled Love Sick recently received its world premiere at the Osher Studio in downtown Berkeley. A joint project between John Gertz Productions and Berkeley's Jewish Circle Theatre, this 90-minute show is a breath of fresh air whose musicians often double as male characters while the female ensemble (Aleksandra Dubov, Bekka Fink, Regina Morones, and Deborah Del Mastro) appears as the "Ladies of Jerusalem." Written and adapted by Ofra Daniel, Love Sick features an attractive musical score composed by Ms. Daniel and Lior Ben-Hur. Ms. Daniel explains her inspiration as follows:
“Love Sick is based on the poetry of the biblical Song of Songs, a collection of erotic love poems reputedly written by King Solomon some 3,000 years ago. Many of these poems are recited as part of the Friday ritual in synagogues. Their obvious eroticism has traditionally been seen as expressing the love between God and His people of Israel. The Song of Songs expresses the strongest female voice in the Bible, giving articulation to female sexual desires and longings. The poems themselves are devoid of narrative form. In fact, it is very difficult even to know where one poem ends and the next begins."
"From this beautiful chaos, I fashioned a fictional narrative offering a new look and interpretation of the ancient Jewish text. The name of the protagonist (Tirzah) derives from the Hebrew verb meaning ‘to please.’ The name harkens to a character from the Bible who is named as the first woman, along with her sisters, to inherit her father’s estate -- radical feminine empowerment for its time. Our Tirzah sequentially tries to please by living according to society’s standards and then tries to revolt against those same mores."
The story follows the emotional unraveling of Tirzah (Ofra Daniel), a young woman in ancient Jerusalem who marries a widowed fishmonger (David Maclean) who was left with two children. At the time of her marriage, Tirzah is innocent and unquestioning. However, as the years go by, she proves unable to bear children. While at the market one day, she makes eye contact with a handsome stranger (Ali Paris). Soon she starts to receive notes, poems, and love letters which feed her fantasies about him. Though she may be bored with her husband, Tirzah can't stop obsessing about what kind of lover this mysterious man could be.
The women of the village start to notice Tirzah's strange behavior. When invited to a wedding, she starts to dance and gradually loses control of herself. Relishing the sensuality of the music and how her body responds to it, her movements become more suggestive. After taking off her formal clothes, she proceeds to belly dance in the equivalent of an undergarment. The women attending the wedding may be scandalized by Tirzah's behavior, but the men like what they see.
The letters from her mysterious lover stop arriving and, for a month Tirzah is severely depressed until one day, a new letter arrives suggesting that the time has come for them to meet. Her fantasy lover suggests that they meet on the roof of her house at midnight. However, when she learns that the poetic lover she longed for was, in fact, only her shy husband trying to find a way to communicate with her, Tirzah loses touch with reality. She leaves her home, never to return, and descends into madness. Stripping off her nightgown, she steps out of her shoes, and walks naked from ancient Jerusalem to modern Tel-Aviv, where she becomes a homeless person known to one and all as The Meshugah, or the crazy poet of the streets.
“The play is framed by an ignorant society that cannot imagine a possible love story between a husband and his wife, and certainly cannot cope with a woman’s burgeoning and adulterous sexuality. Both the husband and his wife are blinded by and bound to the restrictions of their personalities and society, unable to express or experience love within their relationship,” stresses Ofra Daniel. “The play also deals with questions regarding the limited human ability to accept the imperfection of the subject of our love. Two people, husband and wife, cannot love what they have but instead love phantasms of each other. What happens when the fantasy shatters?”
Working on a simple set designed by Erik Flatmo (with costumes by Connie Strayer and choreography by Matt Cole), the show has been staged as a magnificent exercise in storytelling through music and dance. In his director’s note, Christopher Renshaw writes:
“The world-music score that Lior Ben-Hur and Ofra Daniel have created, which blends traditional sounds of klezmer and flamenco with a musical landscape heard throughout the modern day Middle East, is totally innovative. And it is totally original, as well as deeply moving, to showcase a story written by a woman, played by a woman, and about a woman who discovers her identity, sensuality, and sexuality in a contemporary setting through something as ancient as the biblical texts of the Song of Songs. This story could be told in a refugee camp, in the streets of Tel Aviv, or in the mind of a woman obsessed with love.”
Ms. Daniel delivers an intense performance as Tirzah which is gently balanced by David Maclean's portrayal of her husband (Maclean also performs on guitar) and Ali Paris's presence as her fantasy lover. If I occasionally found Mr. Paris more interesting to watch, it was because I was fascinated by his movements while playing the qanun (a 72-string variation on a zither). Kate Boyd's lighting and the impressive sound design by Brendan Aanes enhanced the high quality of this production. Here's the trailer: