Without ghosts or monsters: “Recall”

Recall is the kind of simply staged yet powerful, chilling theatre we’ve come to expect from the Visceral Company.


Madeline Bertani, Karen Nicole

Unlike their long-running Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite, this quiet play sends its tremors through us without ghosts or monsters.  More like Visceral’s recent stunner Kill Me, it starts with an  unadorned image of contemporary life.  Recall then shifts our familiar world — a motel room, an apartment, a school, a clinic — slightly into the future.  Or, if we’re lucky, into a parallel universe we may manage to avoid.

Playwright Eliza Clark (The Metaphysics of Breakfast) lays out her story with swift economy.  Master director Dan Spurgeon lets the dystopia’s disturbing differences emerge organically, as conditions the characters must live with.  And we silently recognize, step by step, how close we are to making their cruel world our own.

Recall is powered by some remarkable acting.  As Lucy, Madeline Bertani (who seems to have channeled the young Christina Ricci)  sustains a dead-on portrait of a wry, gifted girl gamely confronting adolescence — with one flawed gift that poisons her bouquet.   She wins our empathy without asking for it, a fierce Ophelia born into a state where something is indeed rotten.

As Lucy’s mother, Karen Nicole creates an equally sympathetic and  unnerving character — a determined but overwhelmed single parent who looks for trust  in all the wrong faces, holding tight to her child as she swims against the crushing tide of a system that knows what’s best.  And Kevin Grossman wonderfully inhabits the gentle, geeky goth Quinn, who shyly offers Lucy the only friendship she finds.

Mark Souza, as the double agent David, nicely handles the challenge of a man who lives only in the moment, stripped of the memories by which we shape our selves.  And Lara Fisher offers a sticky clinician who has gained power over others’ lives by learning to mimic people who actually have emotions.

A couple of notes were less-than-perfectly struck.  In the performance I saw, the clever device of a second playing area behind doors was undercut by some hinges not working well.  And Fisher’s mask of sanity was slightly chipped by chirpiness, when it might be more fearsome if it were smoother.

But these were tiny surface nicks on a polished, powerful production.   Chris Bell’s flexible design creates a clean, prosaic world we immediately recognize, and Pam Noles’ costumes add to the discomfort of the familiar.  Joshua Burton’s lighting and Tyler Burton’s soundtrack lead us seamlessly into the deepening darkness.

Recall calls us to mourn and decry a horror, while making us unable to hate any of the human beings enmeshed in it.  We end in tears, not anger, unable to hate them because we are them, and they are us.

In doing this, Recall deftly accomplishes the task of tragedy.  It moves us to pity and terror, and bids us take warning not to let our world slip into theirs.  Don’t miss your chance.

Recall, by Eliza Clark, directed by Dan Spurgeon, produced by The Visceral Company.

At the Lex Theatre, Lexington and McCadden Sts., Hollywood.  Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, through May 4.

Tickets at: <www.thevisceralcompany.com>




Woman as daemon: 2. “Carmen”

A mystery:  In Highland Park a few weeks ago, a cigarette-factory worker seduced a soldier.   Their brief, torrid affair ended with the soldier murdering her.  Although 200 people witnessed the killing, the LAPD was not called.

We bystanders were watching the Pacific Opera Project perform   Carmen, a Romantic-era story that — set to Georges Bizet’s music — has been a worldwide favorite for well over 100 years.


There’s no mystery about Pacific Opera’s production — it was a triumph.  With just a week’s rehearsal, the young singers (led by music director Stephen Karr from the piano) created a lively, colorful staging of the world’s best-known opera.  They enthusiastically filled the cabaret-style house with romance, humor and tragic drama.

And music.  As an ensemble, the POP singers summoned Bizet’s rich musical world, drew us in and kept us there — without an orchestra.  That’s a stunning accomplishment few opera troupes would dare, much less achieve.

Vocally, the cast ranged from quite good to quite remarkable.   The two leads — mezzo Norah Graham-Smith (Carmen) and tenor Adam Cromer (Don José) — were comfortably equal to their lengthy, demanding roles, and each delivered clear, moving arias.  They both excelled at singing in dialogue with (not simply at) other characters.  Graham-Smith also managed the ceaseless flow of energy, sexuality, wit and emotion with which Carmen propels the entire story.

The two second singers — soprano Aubrey Scarr (as Micaela, Don José’s fiancée) and bass-baritone Babatunde Akinboboye (as the bullfighter Escamillo) nearly stole the show.   Granted, their roles are shorter, and the script doesn’t require as much action from them — though Escamillo bounced through the house, working the room like a rock star.  Nonetheless, each displayed vocal purity and power, and verbal clarity, that was a delight to hear.

In smaller roles, mezzo Meagan Martin (Mercédès) and soprano Nicole Fernandes (Frasquita) sparkled — but with due restraint — in their duet work, and in trio with Graham-Smith.

Director Shaw created an open, versatile setting (with highly dramatic lighting) and Maggie Green’s colorful, clearly readable costumes suggested the period without getting lost in it.

It’s easy to understand why the audience punctuated the show with vigorous applause, and stood cheering at the end.

There’s also no mystery about Bizet’s score.  Its major themes have become part of our popular culture.  If you stop a stranger in a mall and hum the first few bars of Carmen’s habanera, or of  Escamillo’s “Toreador Song,” they can probably join in — though they may never have been to an opera.

The mystery about Carmen is the story.   Do we just put up with it in order to have the music?  No — when that’s the case, the opera stops being performed and the music survives without it.  Look at Handel’s oratorios, and most of Baroque opera.

It seems that the story itself — an amoral femme fatale who nearly tears apart the society she lives in, and does destroy her lover — touches a chord with us.  With audiences worldwide, for that matter.

My guess is that she embodies what’s pushed away, out of  society and out of mind — woman’s sexuality, and her ability to enjoy and own it.  Carmen became popular in an era when sex was, as the Victorian saying had it, “something men enjoy and women endure.”   “Good women” did not desire sex, and such things were never discussed in polite society.

(We’re not as far from that era as we like to think.  My grandmother first offered to tell my mother about sex as they were riding the train to my parents’ wedding;  and just last week, a friend with two teen children admitted she’s never had an orgasm.)

I suspect we’re still fascinated by Carmen not just because she’s sexy, but because in her fierce independence and amorality she embodies something we know is still missing from our world.  A force we, like the Victorians, fear will erupt and shatter our social order.

Moralist preachers and politicians keep trying to harness women’s bodies; and Don José keeps murdering Carmen, every time Act IV comes around.  But she keeps returning, and we keep flocking to see her, hear her, feel her vitality.  Want a  tip?  Don’t bet on Don José.


Woman as daemon: 1. “Salome”

In a small space before a pair of brick arches, the Archway Theatre re-creates the palace of Herod Antipas, in the time of Jesus.  Or perhaps I should say they re-create the palace’s balcony as an Irish poet and playwright imagined it, late in Queen Victoria’s reign.

But that’s not quite right, either.  The story we saw Friday probably couldn’t have happened 2,000 years ago.  And the Queen’s censor permitted no public staging of Oscar Wilde’s Salome at all  in 1892 London.  (It opened in Paris, a few years later.)

Deneen Melody

Salome is only a one-act, but it’s a complex, difficult play.  Even a dangerous one.

It’s difficult for several reasons.  It leaps in media res, with little exposition, trusting us to know the Biblical tale; the two main characters shift attitudes and emotions mercurially; the style slips between masque and realistic drama, and the language is both poetic and stunningly frank.  These are not easy assignments for a troupe to take on.

Salome is dangerous because … well, the Victorian censor didn’t fear  the play’s image of John the Baptist, as he claimed, but its sexuality.  Herod lusts after his stepdaughter openly and often.  She in turn plies her seductive skills on the Syrian captain Narraboth, on the imprisoned prophet (whom Wilde calls Jokanaan) , and finally — in her famous dance — on her lascivious parent.

Salome is also bloody.   The prophet’s severed head spends the last several minutes onstage, as Salome enjoys a revenge even more brutal and shocking than anything recounted by the gospel writers (or the Roman historian Josephus).

Most of all, though, Salome is subversive.  Wilde brings vividly to center stage the power struggle between Herod  and Salome that’s latent in the gospels (they focus instead on Christ’s deputy vs. Caesar’s).  Wilde sets forth an iconic battle of child against parent, victim against abuser, subject against the crown — in sum, woman against the patriarchy.

Directed by Steven Sabel, the Archway players deliver a briskly paced performance, handling the language with nearly uniform clarity as they gather outside Herod’s feast hall to admire the moon.  It’s almost a tableau vivant, given the small space and Wilde’s lack  of interest in having his characters move (a cause of friction between him and the director of his prior play, Lady Windermere’s Fan).

In bursts Salome (Deneen Melody on  opening night) , fleeing her stepfather’s attentions, bristling with unsettled emotion.  The half-clad princess hits this small, static world like a tornado, unbalancing everyone.  She resolves to meet the prophet although — or perhaps because — Herod has forbidden it, using her sexual and royal powers to make the smitten Narraboth (Avi Nash) free him.

She then engages Jokanaan (Keith Wyffels) in an erotic love-hate dance, drawn to him, fiercely rebuffed, recoiling, then returning.  Each time, she poetically proclaims her infatuation (“thy body,” “thy hair,”   “thine eyes,” “thy mouth”) then retreats, reviling what she had praised.  Made frantic by this escalating madness, Narraboth slays himself — a soldier (Wali Habib) hides the body and the prophet flees back to his cell.

Enter Herod (Elias McCabe) and his queen (Jennifer Hawkins).  He’s drunk and prowling for Salome, she’s trying to hold him back and placate their guests.   He keeps wheedling his daughter to dance; Salome, shamed and disgusted, keeps refusing.  Finally, he offers to pay her anything at all; she seizes the opportunity, making him vow.

With the Dance of the Seven Veils, Salome’s eroticism reaches its peak, and she decisively wrests the power from her king/father.  Refusing all his counter-offers, she insists on her  chosen payment: the prophet’s head.  But her triumph is tragic and  brief.   Lifting her grisly trophy, she laments her life as an unseen, unloved girl, made into an object of political and sexual desire.  Kissing the lips that spat at her, she descends into a mad, explicitly sexual pas de deux with what remains of the one man she tried to love.  Herod, retrieving the reins, orders her execution: the sword falls as the play ends.

In the demanding title role, Melody draws on her experience as a ballerina and a horror film actress to deliver a bravura performance.  Her Salome wins our empathy even as she shocks and appalls us, shattering our comfort and our hearts.  She soars and drops through the princess’ manic changes, tirelessly shifting shape both physically and vocally.   Hers is a definitive Salome.

McCabe, as her main antagonist, gives us a Herod of commanding presence, almost too drunk to marshal the shrewd intelligence of a client king skilled at navigating the uncertain seas of Roman rule.  His greedy lust for his stepdaughter, and the self-indulgence and  self-deception that enable it, are chillingly embodied.

Wyffels, as the princess’ secondary antagonist, must deliver most of his lines offstage (most of them written not by Wilde but by the King James translators).  Onstage, he shows us a man of spiritual and physical power, baffled by the onslaught of Salome’s emotional need and sexual manipulation.

Also worthy of note are Hawkins’ ability to chide and even rage at her husband while still showing us their strong emotional bond; the clarity and easy authority of the Roman envoy (Luke McMahon); and the dry, world-weary wit (a homage to Wilde himself) with which Daniel Krause endows the envoy from Cappadocia.

Sabel and his production team make good use of the theatre’s small, shallow space, creating a readily believable setting and working bravely against Wilde’s tendency to write a “stand and deliver” play.
Wilde’s poetry is spoken with understanding, though his frequent use of repetition does invite more variety of delivery — and accumulated meaning — than it at times receives.  Sabel also at times allows a modern sense of physical boundaries to overwhelm the text, as when Salome tempts Narraboth by promising a smile and a flower tomorrow, while she is already fondling him.

Today, more than a century after it appeared, Salome remains a shocking, powerful play.   Back in 1892, Wilde was hugely famous as a salon wit, and was growing rich as a writer of hit drawing-room comedies.  What drew him to this lurid tale of lust and violence?

Did he intend to publish — one year into their disastrous affair — a parable of how the young nobleman Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas was ruthlessly degrading Wilde and goading his own father into outing them?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  Did he mean to suggest symbolically that his own closeted desire was fatally threatening his hard-won image as a witty intellectual prophet who exposed Victorian society’s prim hypocrisy? Perhaps, perhaps not.

What’s certain is that less than four years after writing Salome, Wilde was in prison for sodomy, his career destroyed, his wife and family alienated.  What’s also certain is that the text he created still offers a shattering indictment of the sexual and political exploitation that lies uneasily beneath the seeming order of patriarchy — Biblical, British imperial, or American modern.  Congratulations to Archway Theatre for presenting it to us.

Salome, by Oscar Wilde.  Produced and directed by Stephen Sabel, at the Archway Theatre.  Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays (except April 20) at 2 PM, through May 11.

Disclaimer:  I have acted with Ms. Melody, and directed her recently in Carmilla at ZJU Theatre.


Among Mad People: “Mancomio” at ZJU

Zombie Joe’s Underground is known for pushing envelopes — right into our faces, confronting us with lost, dark and hidden things that unsettle us.  Drop into the rabbit hole on Lankershim any Friday until May 23, and you’ll find a new show doing just that.


This supple word, in Latin languages, can mean many things:  a mad person, an asylum for mad people, or madness itself.   Director Sebastian Muñoz and his crew bring it all, in an hour of non-stop shocks and surprises.

photo: Adam Neubauer

To begin with, the house doesn’t look right — a large oblong box sits where the heart of the front row should be.  A row of seats spreads along what’s usually the back of the stage.   And we’re not alone.

“Some of these folks don’t seem to be … ah, paying guests,” my companion whispers, as a disheveled woman in a housecoat wanders up, eyes us, then veers off.  Behind her stands a strapping young man in shorts and T-shirt, not entirely clean, looking lost.

I begin to feel I know this place.  It brings back the years I spent, before returning to theatre, as a therapist in clinics for the mentally ill.   And indeed, before the lights dim, it’s clear that’s where we are.

In place of a story, this Manicomio offers — as a visit to a real one does — a gentle shove into several stories, as one by one the residents collar our attention and erupt with what troubles them.  Some ramblings are sung, some spoken (in various languages), some mimed or moaned.  Some are poignant, some are indigestible word salad, some have moments of humor.

All of these madhouse tales are non-linear and disturbing, evoking our confusion and our empathy.  Uncomfortably often, they also elicit the chaos bubbling beneath our own socially correct surfaces.

As Alice says in Wonderland, “I don’t want to go among mad people.” It’s easier to look at involuntary suffering from the outside, and label it “illness.”  That’s how we deal with the visitations of fate upon our neighbors — a diagnosis and some pills.  Whether they work or not (usually not), at least they keep us at a safe distance.

The ZJU actors don’t cut themselves that kind of slack. They don’t talk about mental illness, or perform a “movie-of-the-week” melodrama to wring a little pity or a donation.  Instead, they throw themselves into an unscripted, frightening worlds they’ve allowed to arise from their own fears and compulsions.

Although it’s carefully crafted, Manicomio is disorganized, disturbing and unresolved.  It simply ends.  And the actors’ exit reminds us that in a real manicomio, only the visitors get to leave.

I confess:  I’ve spent half a lifetime dealing with mental illness, and Marat/Sade is one of my favorite plays.  I’ve also worked, as actor and director, at ZJU many times over the last 10 years.

But Peter Weiss’ madhouse masterpiece has a political axe to grind, and it’s set two centuries away from our daily world.

Manicomio is not a masterpiece.  But it is a theatrically daring, emotionally honest attempt to explore the tortured solitude that descends daily upon too many of us.  Not to poke fun or ostracize, not to analyze or explain.  Just to remind us — with the humility of art — that this confusing, painful mystery is a part of our lives.

, at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, 8:30 pm Fridays through May 23.  Produced by Zombie Joe, directed by Sebastian Muñoz.

CastJared Adams, Charlotte Bjornbak, Jahel Corban Caldera, Ramona Creel, Joachim de la Rua, Samm Hill, Tyler Koster, Leif LaDuke, Jackie Lastra, Kevin Van Cott, R. Benjamin Warren, Jessica Weiner,  and Ann Wescott.

Tickets: (818)420-2120, or <zombiesjoes.tix.com>

On the Bodies of Women: 2. “How I Learned to Drive”

In recent weeks, I’ve witnessed — no, participated in, from the seats — two stage productions focused on the bodies of women. Here’s my attempt to thread my way through these engaging, disturbing experiences.


This unassuming play premiered in1997, winning a Pulitzer and shelf of theatre awards, and has become a familiar feature of our theatre landscape.   Now the Illyrian Players, on the Theatre Asylum stage, are giving full, chilling life to this modern classic. 

Thadeus Shaffer and Elitia Daniels

It’s the story of a girl, Li’l Bit (Elitia Daniels) who learns driving — and drinking — and sexuality — from her alcoholic uncle Peck (Thaddeus Shaffer).  It’s simply told:  two chairs on a bare stage, at times two more and a table, in one scene a bed.  Only the two main characters are drawn full; the others are sketched by three supporting actors (Anna Walters, Jonny Taylor, and Cassandra Gonzales).

With these bits of yarn, Paula Vogel (now Yale’s playwriting prof) weaves a mesmerizing tale.  In fact — as Ben Brantley noted in his NY Times review of the 2012 Broadway revival — she also slips in “Brechtian scene titles … self-conscious use of illusion, strategically scrambled chronology [and] cartoonish comic exaggeration.”  But it feels familiar, swift and stark, just like a classical tragedy.

Indeed it is a tragedy, one to stand alongside Death of a Salesman or Long Day’s Journey.   Or Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis.  In clear language and images we cannot fail to recognize, How I Learned… reveals the web of half-conscious complicity that surrounds us all, as we struggle to survive our culture’s “design for living.”

By the time this tale is told, we have felt the desperate attempt of each character — even Li’l Bit’s comic-strip grandparents — to make sense of the unspoken rules, to find a way to be a man or a woman. We’ve felt their need to anesthetize the loneliness and pain, to ignore the horrors we endure and, in turn, inflict.

All are ensnared in the gender trap.  No one gets free.  Not even those of us who applaud and leave the theatre.  That’s what makes it tragic.

Vogel knows what she’s doing (we never hear the family’s last name; the three backup players are listed as “Greek Chorus”), and her achievement is remarkable.  She deserves the awards.

Equally worthy of praise is the direction of Carly D. Weckstein (who led Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine last year), and the work of the cast  and crew.   By daring to stay close to the harrowing ride mapped out in Vogel’s script, they lead us on a painful but necessary journey.

Touches of faithful genius fill this production.  The pre-show shocks us with recognition as we hum along to the pedophilic “love songs” of the era (“You’re 16, You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine”; “Young Girl, Get Out of My Mind”), suggested by Vogel and selected by Weckstein.  William Herder’s set wears the face of a ’50s model female emerging on a peeled billboard, torn scraps leaving her with only one eye.   An electronic projection writhes anxiously upon it before the play starts … at the climax, its  white garden-lattice base falls open to become a hotel bed.

In one scene, Uncle Peck “grooms” a young nephew by teaching him to fish.  All the while, Li’l Bit lies under a blanket nearby where (in the previous scene) she’d fallen asleep, drunk, in Peck’s car.  In another scene, as Li’l Bit recounts his relapse and swift alcoholic decline, Peck downs several shots then steps to the edge of the stage, poised as if to take flight;  seconds later, she tells us he died by falling down the cellar stairs.

Many such moments grace the performance.  But it’s the artists Weckstein has chosen who shape its core, sustaining it throughout.

Elitia Daniels displays impressive range, bringing all of Li’l Bit to life, especially eloquent at embodying her often unspoken conflict and discomfort.  Though the play is decidedly non-linear, she clearly shows us her character’s evolution from a child seeking acceptance and love, through confusion and anger, to a young woman struggling for a sense of control in her life.  She reveals flashes of wit and wile that brighten and darken her character.  And Daniels’ own zaftig beauty  (quietly overplayed by Janet Leon’s costume design) makes Li’l Bit’s pre-teen precocity and anguish fully credible.

Thaddeus Shaffer is another felicitous choice.  Laying aside easy  choices (leering lout, Southern gentleman), he delicately crafts a man who has barely survived, long before the scarring war he can’t discuss.  Peck almost visibly trembles with the effort to live within his skin.  We know what he will do, yet we feel his desperation for the empathy his niece gives — and for the devil’s bargain she offers, intimacy in return for his going on the wagon.  Shaffer always shows us, subtly, that Peck’s genuine love and his specious assurances deceive him as well as Li’l Bit.  By the end, he has taken us far from easy judgment and socially approved hatred to a much different, more painful place.

The Greek Chorus trio handles widely varied, often very brief roles.   They carve them clearly, and keep them distinct.  And they move easily among the many styles the script demands.  Anna Walters, as Li’l Bit’s mother, slides from satiric realism to Lucille Ball buffoonery in her multi-stage monologue on how a lady drinks.  Jonny Taylor and Cassandra Gonzales shift smoothly from teens to a pair of sex-obsessed sexagenerians straight out of commedia dell’arte.  Taylor also adroitly twists and curves his tall frame into a short middle-school geek’s sad  self-image.

How I Learned to Drive is, as Weckstein has said, an important play.  It needs to be performed often, as our culture begins the long ascent from patriarchy toward humanity.  And the Illyrian Players, under her direction, are performing it with the artistry, power and immediacy it deserves.

How I Learned to Drive, by the Illyrian Players, at Theatre Asylum; Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 8 pm, through April 13.<www.illyrianplayers.com>



On the Bodies of Women: 1. “The Vagina Monologues”

In recent weeks, I’ve witnessed — no, participated in, from the seats — two stage productions focused on the bodies of women. Here’s my attempt to thread my way through these engaging, disturbing experiences.


In the 18 years since it debuted on a small New York stage, this set of monologues and choral episodes has become a phenomenon. Drawn from Eve Ensler’s interviews with women and girls, it gets countless productions worldwide each year during V-Day (now a three-month season), and the film still runs on HBO.
I’ve always found its expression of women’s diverse experiences of their sexuality intensely moving — drawing laughter, winces of pain, and tears. I’ve also kept participating because I believe it’s a salutary work, one we need to keep living in. Before visiting the Whitefire Theatre in March, I’d worked backstage in three productions, and been in the audience for two others.


But this was my first time.
This time, it happened in Deaf World.
Of the nine women (all seasoned theatre professionals) seven were either Deaf, or hearing American Sign Language interpreters.  (Two, amazingly, knew no ASL before taking part — yet in performance, it was impossible to discern.)  Together, they were telling stories I’d heard often, yet they took me somewhere I’d never been.
ASL, you see, is visual — a language of gesture and movement, not speech. As such, it is beautifully at home on the stage.
Sign language is always moving, flowing through the human face and body and into space, like mime or dance. But unlike mime or dance, it also has a fixed lexicon of meanings, and a complex grammar.
So each story got told twice, in ASL and English simultaneously. Each choral episode rippled around the stage in two languages at once.

The result?
First, a Vagina Monologues accessible to Deaf theatregoers.
That, of course, was the goal — along with raising funds for DeafHope, a project to end sexual violence against deaf women and girls.  Both were impressively achieved.
Second, this production gave “hearings” — English speakers who don’t know ASL — a unique opportunity.  Like other audiences, they heard each segment spoken, with emotion and wit and wonder.  But they also saw and felt it moving, sometimes gracefully, sometimes painfully, through the body and face and hands of a sign language performer.

Finally, several in the audience were “third culture” people, with some fluency in both languages.
I can’t speak for the others; but for me, this was a surprisingly powerful experience.  At times, it was overwhelming.
The stories and choral pieces ranged, as always, from humorous to heart-wrenching.  But this time, they landed on me in stereo — and cut through my unconscious defenses.
Taking in spoken words seemed to hold the attention of whatever part of my mind seeks meaning through thinking.
At the same time, I was seeing and feeling the same story told in sign — embodied, moving physically through another human being, toward me.  I was caught.  I wasn’t just told about this woman’s experience, I was flooded by it.

The monologue “My Vagina Was My Village” is a heart breaker. In a mixture of simple poetic language and harsh factual description, it represents the sufferings of women held in “rape camps” during the Bosnian War of the early ’90s.
I know this piece well.  I have seen it done by a woman who survived such a camp.  I have wept openly at hearing it, seeing it.
This time, as a Deaf actor performed it — and another Deaf actor spoke it, it flowed into me on a much deeper level than mere understanding.  I was overpowered. Tears poured out of me — struggling not to bother my neighbors, I was sobbing so hard I could barely keep from throwing up.

In hearing theatre, we always expect (or at least hope) to be moved.  We assume that what we hear, together with what the actors do and undergo physically before us, will reach out and touch us, in our understanding mind and also more deeply.
But the words — the text, the language — are usually so primary, so dominant, that the visceral experience can remain secondary.  I think we are even able to mute it, hide from it, by focusing on the words and the thoughts.
I suspect that’s why Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty” and Brecht’s confrontational realism arose in the last century.  To break through not only the “fourth wall,” but the defenses our “language brain” unconsciously erects against our visceral connection to the people presenting the story.
These people —  whom we call not “speakers” but “actors” — act in their mock world onstage, true.  But more important, they also act  directly upon us, we fellow humans in the flesh who are sitting near enough to feel them.

Re-awakening our sense of ourselves as live, enfleshed beings is what The Vagina Monologues is all about.  That’s why it exists.  Our need to know our embodied selves — trapped as we are in the verbal fences and intellectual fantasies of “civilization” and its discontents, its cruelties — is why this play has endured and grown, as unstoppable as kudzu.
I still feel strongly that The Vagina Monologues is a necessary work, a major achievement of modern theatre.  And experiencing it in Deaf World is like drinking whiskey neat.  You’ll never feel it more sharply, nor ever forget it.


(1)  The Vagina Monologues at the Whitefire Theatre was produced and directed by Alek Lev (a master ASL interpreter and longtime theatre professional).  Of its profits, 10% went to the global V-Day effort, and 90% went to DeafHope.
The actors were:  Hillary Baack, Cherie Broussard, Jules Dameron (ASL master), Emily Eiden, Catherine Kresge, Zendrea Mitchell, Jonica Patella, Alexandra Wailes, and Amber Zion.

(2) In this text, “Deaf” (capitalized) denotes people whose primary language is ASL and who identify themselves as part of Deaf culture.  The word “deaf” (uncapitalized) includes anyone who has partial or no hearing, whichever language or culture they identify with.