Veronica del Cerro and Naomi McDougall Jones. Photo by Timothy Goodwin.
BOTTOM LINE: Two very different well written short plays explore issues of victimization and sexuality with both comedy and drama.
The Coryphaeus Theater Company has joined forces with Elephant District Run to produce Unsex Me Here, which offers a double dose of one-act plays, putting two shorter works under one umbrella. While the two plays are very different from one another, both in tone and in subject matter, they do complement in each other in that they both explore issues of shame and victimization, showing women victimized at the hands of men in a patriarchal society, and a wife who victimizes her husband through a bizarre ritual.
The first play in the set is The Threadbare Sex which focuses on Antigone (Maria Lilelas), Cassandra (Naomi McDougall Jones,who co-wrote the play) and Electra (Mia Romero, who also co-wrote the play), all female characters from Greek mythology who suffered in some way due to their sexuality. The play opens with the three women standing against the wall, waiting to be tried for their sins. Actress Veronica del Cerro serves as a sort of leader of a Greek chorus, announcing the offences the women have committed. As their crimes are announced each woman is forced into a corset and high heeled shoes, showing them being forced into sexual roles they never desired for themselves. Cleverly, this wardrobe change also allows them to easily transition into the play’s next scene which is set within Victorian England in the style of a drawing room comedy. In the following scene, Antigone is shown to be a bitter gossip, turned rotten inside due to her husband’s absence and possible betrayal. Over cups of tea (spiked with rum) she tries to tear Electra to bits, attempting to chide her both for her sexual relationship with her father as well as her alleged affair with her own husband. Electra mostly deflects the barbs in her direction, happily inebriating herself. The comedic tone of the piece takes a sharp turn when Electra and Antigone both notice the tear in Cassandra’s dress, as they pry further they soon learn that her church’s reverend ripped her dress while forcing himself on her. Antigone coldly tells the vulnerable Cassandra that she surely must have imagined such an event, implying that even if such a thing did in fact happen it is best to pretend that it did not.
The play is most compelling when it transports the scorned women to present day, showing that the issues the women face are ones relevant to modern reality, not confined to that of ancient Greek mythology. Accompanied by del Cerro, the women form a semblance of a greek chorus, and the scene opens with them in unision announcing that they remember the day they took their life back. As the scene unfolds we see each woman confronting the reality of their modern-day lives. Electra is a pill popping workaholic, trying to soften the blow of her father’s death and her mother’s disownment with antidepressants and serial martinis. Antigone is prepared to risk her life to cover international news, travelling to the most dangerous parts of the globe. Cassandra plays a rape victim attempting to reclaim her body and feel safe once again in her skin. The three discuss the constant feeling of danger they have living as women, never feeling truly safe. Antigone laments that her husband holds on to his wallet tighter in bad neighborhood while Electra asks “How do I hold on to my womanhood tighter?” Cassandra echoes this sentiment further by stating that rathering than being raped she would “10,000 times rather be mugged or even beaten. But I am a woman and the only true way to destroy me lies between my legs.” Later Cassandra is shown revisting her rape. Naomi Macdougall Jones giving a bone chilling performance of the rape scene, screaming in terror and agony as she surrenders her body with frightening believability. Although the play sometimes drifts into melodrama, it remains rooted in enough truth for it maintain a semblance of realism. The Threadbare Sex succeeds in depicting the plight of the women of Greek mythology as universal problems, affecting women across time periods and across history. Romero and MacDougall Jones have created a powerful script that creates compelling material and characters around the mythological figures. Each actress also tackles the dramatic material well, embodying the extreme emotional range with authenticity.
The second play in Unsex Me Here is We Haven’t Told Anyone About This, a play that walks the line between dark comedy and drama. Within the play, Paige (Kate Foster), a young woman scraping by on catering jobs, accidentally arrives two hours early to the home of the clients, a married couple named Eric (Chris Harcum, who also wrote the play) and Lana (Rainbow Geffner). After mistaking the couple for fellow catering staff they open up to her and discuss with her the secret reason for their party: a ritual in which Eric is victimized. At first, the ritual is tied to the strange sexual dynamic between the two. Lara and Eric grew up together and as teenagers Eric expressed an interest in dating Lara. Lara apparently found Eric so repulsive that she responded to his interest by forcing him to make out with a friend of hers instead. When she then found out that he would willingly degrade himself for her she went further, finding repulsive or “skanky” women for him to have sex with as well as men to beat him up. “It wasn’t until he was bleeding or he was about to orgasm inside some repulsive, pathetic girl or bruised beyond recognition that I could feel the love I wanted so desperately to feel,” Lana says. Later as Eric agrees to accept his victimization she looks at him tenderly lamenting, “You look so weak, I couldn’t love you more.” Soon it is revealed that the audience at Eric’s ritual victimization consists of those who fell victim to a financial scheme committed by Eric’s father. By watching Eric being harmed they are able to feel retribution for the pain they suffered. As the play inches closer and closer to the ritual performance it takes a turn from comedy to drama as the characters become more desperate and ensnared in the plot’s dark events. Playwright (and actor) Chris Harcum’s script is both compelling and, at times, quite humorous. His dialogue successfully creates mounting suspense. Rainbow Geffner and Kate Foster also give skillful performances, with Foster evoking authentic quirkiness and Geffner conveying chilling coldness.
As a duo, The Threadbare Sex and We Haven’t Told Anyone About This seem like an unlikely pairing, with both works tackling differing topics. However, the inclusion of the two back-to-back takes the theme of victimization and extends it towards both sexes. The sexual dynamic between the characters within We Haven’t Told Anyone About This serves to add greater dimension and perspective to the world perception shown within The Threadbare Sex in which women are in constant danger at the hands of the patriarchy.
(Unsex Me Here plays at Manhattan Theatre Source, 177 Macdougal Street, through July 23, 2011. Performances are are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8PM. Tickets are $18 and are available at ovationtix.com or by calling 866.811.4111.)