Press Opening was the natural time for a post-show speech. Gwen was desperate to get out of the theatre and into the night air – and she could tell Denise wouldn’t be too far behind her – but they’d sat on the opposite side of the theater from the door, and any attempt to leave might be seen as bad form, against the older man now standing onstage, holding a plaque.
“The writer of this play is the winner of last year’s Joining Sword and Pen competition,” the man crooned. “To create pieces of theatre with strong stage combat opportunities, centered on sturdy female roles. This is his third victory. If he’d like to come down to the stage, please.”
A second man, with a twirled moustache, emerged from the applauding crowd. The two men shook hands at center stage, and Arthur Jolly looked at his name on the plaque.
Denise continued to fan herself. Every member of the audience had been given a paper fan upon entering the theatre, and Denise had been fanning herself aggressively throughout the evening.
“Someone’s going to notice you telegraphing your emotions through your fan,” Gwen had warned at intermission.
“I feel nothing,” Denise replied. “This is stage combat, and I am Kitana.”
“Would you like to say a few words?” the man asked Jolly.
“Oh, no,” Jolly demurred. “I think the actors have said everything that needs to be said.”
“Yeah, damn right,” Eleanor muttered. Denise, hearing her, laughed.
– – – – –
“Have you seen shows from them before?” Eleanor asked.
“Only a few,” Gwen admitted. “I always like their spirit. Their Henry V was pretty good. I recall wanting more combat from some of their shows.”
Denise shrugged. “I don’t know exactly what I expected, but I had high hopes. A company of badass femmes showcasing their precision, physical strength, and sword skills is worth rooting for. I expected some great choreography, and a diverse use of combat styles.”
“But the script doesn’t lend itself to that,” Eleanor said.
“Yeah,” Denise continued. “The powerful matriarch, who managed to slay a man on her first entrance, never got to show the ferocity her reputation claimed. And the young heroine, who trains to fight for her life and liberty, never had the textual support to rise above a few swats of the sword.”
“I get that she’s supposed to get better at swords as the play goes on,” Eleanor added. “But she goes from zero to 100 way too quick.”
“I don’t know,” Dania said. “I thought it was at least kinda funny. If you like that kind of really loud, shouty sort of comedy. There was some good writing at times.”
“Where?” Denise asked. “If I come to a farce, or a comedy of errors, I expect smart humor. The plot was winding, the meter wavered, and I couldn’t quite place where or when we were in history. I wonder how much of the play would have gotten laughs, had there not been transitions that were just characters running across the stage making noises?”
“Yeah, maybe it could work once,” Dania agreed. “But if you keep doing it, every transition…”
“That feels intentional,” Gwen defended. “Some sort of commedia convention that fell flat.”
“Perhaps it’s the performances, though,” Eleanor defended. “I agree, it’s not the comedy of manners I thought it was gonna be. But maybe the writing is stronger than the performances.”
“Also––” Denise blazed on. “Can I have a piece of ‘feminist’ theatre where women aren’t lying to one another? Even though they were all working toward the same goal, they all constantly lie to one another. I want to see the play where the smart, cunning women come together and dismantle an oppressive tradition, trusting one another along the way. I kept going back to my program, trying to find a director’s note, something to ground me in an objective, theme, or thought behind the piece. I wonder if I had been able to access the creative conversation in that way, and had a thread to hold on to, I might have felt differently.
Denise sighed. “This kind of show is not my style,” she continued. “I rarely choose a farce – the usual ingredients of pratfalls, pants dropping, and slamming doors rarely gets me. I’m here for a cast that was mostly femme humans, and I was rooting for them the whole time. In the end, I think the style was what lost me — and without something to ground me in the vision, I was left floating.
“Well, then you’re blaming the show for not being what you wished it would be,” Eleanor countered.
“…Sure,” Denise said, “but in this day and age, it is responsible to consider the audience experience. You don’t need to change your style, or spoon feed the plot, but consider things that everyone can grab hold of, that will keep them engaged and invested in the lives you’re sharing on stage.”
“I mean, if you’re saying that we should care about the characters, yeah,” Dania agreed. “I gave up on that in Scene 2, and focused on the comedy.”
“I wonder what they expect their audience to be?” Denise considered. “The cast had a range of ethnic identities, but the audience less so. I felt it when the entire audience was laughing along to the––German? Gibberish?––that the characters were speaking. I caught a little from body language, but I’m not descended from eastern europeans…”
Denise glanced upwards. “I mean, except for the whole colonization and eradication of my ancestors thing,” she added, dryly. “So I had nothing to go on. I felt like the play was never meant for me to watch it in the first place.”
Eleanor shrugged. “I mean, I’m not gonna defend it.”
“What exactly were the costumes?” Gwen asked. “Because it wasn’t exactly regency.”
“Yeah, was it supposed to be Regency?,” Denise replied, glad to have an opening. “I couldn’t tell. I didn’t know where we were. I saw bows, and thought maybe Restoration? But the tricorn hats pushed me back toward Regency. But then where were they?”
Dania, who couldn’t tell a pelisse from a periwig, nodded. “They did look pretty.”
“Oh, I thought the costumes were beautiful, and well constructed,” continued Denise. “It’s definitely an investment for storefront theatres to use period costumes, and it often comes at the expense of the other designer’s initial budgets. Also! Once they switched to the gender-bending costuming, I was really pleased with the tailored looks of the two Prussian visitors, and appreciated that they looked good, and could move. It wasn’t overdesigned.”
“Although the set has that design thing that bugs me,” Eleanor said. “Where everything is minimal, so obviously everything is going to be used or it wouldn’t have been brought onstage. So you’re watching that gargoyle thinking, ‘okay, someone push it off the mantle, we all know it’s coming.’”
“If you like your metal gargoyles to bounce…” Denise began, but was cut off by Dania’s laughter.
“That bit was honestly amazing, though, you have to admit,” she chuckled. “There was a lot that was unintentionally funny. I mean, I certainly enjoyed it, if nothing else. It can claim that.”
“I definitely agree that it was enjoyable,” Denise admitted. “The audience was really laughing – I may have been the biggest pooper at the party.”
Suddenly, her eyes widened. “Oh! but wait. can we talk about the handkerchief scene?”
Dania immediately began laughing again.
“I did not expect it at all,” Denise said. “It went on a little too long for my taste. But again! My TASTE right? And the noises…I just…I wasn’t prepared for such hetero expressions…”
“Yeah, what was that?” Eleanor cried out. “I just feel bad for the actress. Everyone in this show seems like they’re getting good work, from their bios alone. Why are they in this show that just…”
“Feels unpolished?” Gwen suggested.
“…doesn’t give anyone any dignity,” Eleanor answered. “Everyone comes out looking like a fool.”
“I wanted them to have more agency,” Denise agreed. “I don’t know. The actors were working hard. Kate Booth, Ari Kraiman, and Amanda Forman really carried the show. The story itself seems to be empowering — A woman wants to maintain her wealth and property by learning a “masculine” skill, and defending herself. But in the actual unfolding of it, the laughs were at the expense of femininity.”
“Well, maybe some people like fluff,” Dania suggested. “Not everything has to be a deep dive into the psyche, or something.”
Denise considered this. “Yeah. You’re right,” she eventually said. “There is value in a play that is entertaining, and lighthearted, and not pushing a big question or agenda. But I don’t think those plays are for me, as an audience member or as a creator. I think we should be putting women on stage, for sure — and I think if straight white cis men can out on mediocre stuff, then women should be able to as well, and make just as much money doing it. But I dunno, I just want more. Because we’re capable of more. Give me a scene where Booth and Kraiman are creating their imitation Prussian costume, talking about the absurdity of the situation, about the class differences at play, and how the woman they work for somehow can’t remember their names, but expects them to dispose of corpses for her. There really was space for great scenes with these women.”
She sighed. “But – again, it comes back to my preference – those things were not what this farce wanted to be. I wonder what it would have been if a woman had written it?”
“Eh,” Eleanor shrugged. “Maybe their all-female Othello in the Spring will be better.”
“It’ll be the second play written by a dude in their season,” Dania chimed in.
“Remember when Julia Stiles played Desdemona?” Denise asked, with a laugh. “I was into that. But that play is a lot about toxic masculinity, and the ways a woman’s perceived sexual history can affect the way she is treated. Maybe they’ll give Emilia a sword, and she can finally get back at Iago for that whole handkerchief thing.”
Denise stopped walking. “Hey! I found a reason for the handkerchief!”
Denise Yvette Serna is a director and curator in the Chicago area. She recently directed for the 2018 LTC Carnaval of New Latinx Work, and will be directing for Strawdog Theatre in the fall. You can find her on twitter at @_nissi, and find more information about her on her website.
Image Credit: (l to r) Megan Schemmel, Amanda M. Forman, Ari Kraiman & Kate Booth. Photo by Joe Mazza.