What do you do when 7 few years after you’ve graduated from college, you are adrift, emotionally miserable and/or in physical pain? What if cocaine, alcohol, social media obsessions, abstinence from sex, indulgence in sex, and your Catholicism isn’t helping you find your way? Do you find something else to believe in to help you escape from the labyrinth of conundrums and foreboding demon thoughts plaguing your life?
Will Arbery in Heroes of the Fourth Turning ably directed by Danya Taymor discloses the inner world of the right wing religious. In his entertaining and profound examination of conservative-minded friends-alumni from a small, Catholic college who gather for a party, we get to see an interesting portrait of conservative “types,” who are akin to liberals in dishing the rhetoric. To his credit Arbery gives grist to the argument that beyond the cant are the issues that pertain to every American. Whether liberal or conservative, all have the need to belong, to care and love, and to make a way where there is no apparent way to traverse the noise and cacophony, creating the social, political divide currently in our nation.
How each of the friends attempts to survive “out there” in the cruel, “evil” world fascinates. During the evening mini reunion on the occasion of celebrating Emily’s mom’s accepting the presidency of their alma mater, Emily (Julia McDermott) Kevin (John Zdrojeski) Justin (Jeb Kreager) and Teresa (Zoë Winters) explain who they’ve become or not become in the seven years since they’ve graduated. Teresa, a rebel during her college years, has become more right-wing conservative than ever, embracing Steve Bannon, Breitbart and Trump with gusto. The others have “laid low” in retreat in Wyoming and Oklahoma holding jobs they either despise or “put up with” until they get something better.
Zoë Winters portrays Teresa, the feisty, determined, “assured,” conspiracy-theorist supporter with annoying certainty and hyper- vitality as she explains the next phase of American history to the others. She does this by summarizing a book which posits the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory. Emily, Teresa and Kevin fit into the millennial segment which lends its title to the play: the fourth turning/hero cycle. As she insists that her friends are the hero archetypes laid out in Generations: The History of America’s Future: 1584-2069, she suggests they must embrace their inner/outer hero and get ready for the coming Civil War.
For different reasons Emily and Kevin find Teresa’s explanation of the “Fourth Turning” conceptualization doubtful for their lives. Kevin’s self-loathing and miserable weaknesses belie heroism. He is too full of self-torture and denigration to get out of himself to help another or take a stand for a conservative polemic to fight the liberal enemy in a Civil War. Emily is crippled by the pain of her disease. We discover later in the play that she has questions about the conservatism she once embraced. The Civil War polemic only seems possible for Justin (Jeb Kreager) who was in the military. Though Justin is not the “Hero” archetype, but is a “Nomad,” he later in the evening expresses that he thinks the conspiracy mantra “there will be a Civil War” leveled by alternative right websites will happen.
Arbery has targeted their conversations with credibility and accuracy and the actors are authentic in their nuanced portrayals. As Kevin, John Zdrojeski becomes more drunk, humorous and emotionally outrageous as the night progresses. His behavior shocks for a supposed Catholic until we understand Kevin doubts his religion’s tenets, especially abstinence before marriage. To a great extent he has been crippled emotionally by this doubt, double-mindedness and abject boredom he experiences with his job in Oklahoma and addiction to Social Media. Zdrojeski projects Kevin’s confusion and self-loathing victimization with pathos and humor. But we can’t quite feel sorry for him because he is responsible for his morass and appears to enjoy reveling in it to his friends, which is a typical M.O. as Teresa suggests.
As the friends wait for the arrival of Gina (Michele Pawk) Emily’s mom’s to congratulate her becoming president of their old alma mater, Catholic Transfiguration College of Wyoming, they drink and get drunk. While they catch up with each other, they reaffirm their friendships from the past and discuss and reflect what brought them to Catholic Transfiguration College to begin with. We note their conservative, religious views about life, family, politics and identify their confusion, sense of impending doom and lack of hope for the future. This is an irony for Catholics whose hope should reside with the birth of Christ and the resurrection. Clearly, they are not exercising the spiritual component of their faith, alluded to in Gina’s speech and in Kevin’s quoting of Wordsworth’s poem “The World is Too Much With Us.” They’ve allowed the material and carnal to overtake the spiritual dimension and thus are depressed and filled with doubt.
In representing the conservatives views of these individuals, the playwright culls talking points from right-wing media and blogs which Teresa references to Gina when Gina finally arrives. The fact that right-wing conservatism construes violent fighters as heroes is a conflated, limited view. Indeed, to see oneself as a hero and embrace that role is not even an act which true heroes (i.e. firemen, doctors in war zones) saving lives perceive for themselves. It is rhetoric. And Teresa, to empower herself to her old friends, speaks it as polemic. Her discussion is not really appropriate to inspire comfortable light conversation at a party. Indeed, her talk is done to solidify herself in the firmament of fantastical belief and remove any oblivion of her own doubts about her life. She and Justin who was in the military particularly range against liberals, the LBGTQ community, Black Lives Matter, etc.
Interestingly, Gina blows up Teresa’s cant when she finally arrives to receive the friends’ congratulations. However, they are not quite ready for Gina’s rhetorical response which is a convolution of conservative and liberal ideas that loop in on themselves again and again and defy political labeling. But Gina separates out the illogic of each of their positions. She disavows Justin’s need for guns on campus and decries the conspiracy of the upcoming “Civil War.” She implies that Bannon and his like-minded are hacks, and disavows Trump to the shock of Teresa. She pronounces toward the end of the evening that she is disappointed in the education they have received at their school, indeed, believing the college has failed them.
The night of celebration becomes a night of upheaval for Emily, Justin and Kevin and even the staunchly “certain” Teresa who will in the next decade most probably change her views a number of times to suit her determination that she has a handle on the great narrative of “reality.” But in truth as we watch these friends founder through the morass of sublimely complex political, social and cultural convergences they discuss and refer to, it becomes obvious that they have been dislocated from their comfortable conservatism that categorically defined the world for them when they began college.
The irony is that when Gina comes and joins their conversation and smacks down each of their beliefs, especially Teresa’s, we settle back watching the imbroglio that Arbery has wrought. Indeed, we wonder at Gina’s convoluted logic and justifications. That she would give Kevin a job in admissions is a sardonic irony of misjudgment. He appears the least directed to help others in the admissions process. Though they say their goodbyes with love, Justin and Emily remain in darkness. There is no comfort to be found only a continuation of a foreboding reckoning.
The strongest dynamic of the play resides in the conflicts when Arbery has the friends go at each other after their initial easy reaffirmation of friendships. Ironically, the community they attempt to create falls apart driven by what is devouring each of them inside. It is then that personal flaws they’ve discussed manifest and the hell they face within spills out. Justin’s is humorously eerie. Emily’s comes in the form of fury at whom she deals with in her job and the resident demon of pain in her body. Teresa fears she is making a mistake getting married and Kevin can’t come to the end of himself.
The tempest between the individuals and their inner conflicts reflects a currency for our times and is welcome fodder for entertainment. Arbery with the direction of Taymor has succeeded in extending a hand across the divide of national uproar between left and right with his human, flawed characters. The actors in this ensemble are superb and hit powerful emotional notes with spot-on nuances between humor and profound drama.
This is a play you must see for its shining performances, its topics, the rhetoric exceptionally fashioned by the playwright and its surprises in characterization. The conclusion is chilling. Noted are the design team: Sarafina Bush (costumes) Isabella Byrd (lighting) Justin Ellington (sound) J. David Brimmer (fight director).
Heroes of the Fourth Turning runs with no intermission at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street between 8th and 9th). For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
Wives written by Jaclyn Backhaus directed by Margot Bordelon is a playful, farcical, quasi-philosophical comedy about women freeing themselves from the definitions and oppressions men have “gently” bestowed on them. Considering that most women outlive their spouses today, if women live long after their husbands have died, shouldn’t they be able to redefine their lives into a new evolution? Wives in attempting to grapple with this question features four segments with different settings to reveal how the women, some celebrated, some unknown, confronted their freedom after the dominant male in their lives lost power or expired.
Backhaus’ plays is a series of self-contained vignettes that require the audience to understand a bit about each setting as it twits the character wives and their husbands or in the case of India (third vignette) colonial institutions. The first wife is the amazing, vilified, powerful and ingenious Catherine de’ Medici (Purva Bedi portrays the wealthy Italian noblewoman) whom her relative Pope Clement VII, labeled her marriage to French Duke of Orléans as the “greatest match in the world,” taking credit for the arrangement. When her husband became King Henri (Sathya Sridharan) she was vaulted her into the position of Queen of France. But she rarely saw Henri who favored his mistress Diane de Poiters (Aadya Bedi). Only after ten years when her life as Queen depended on producing an heir, did Cathy begin to have sex with Henri to produce ten children, seven of whom lived to adulthood with her.
Backhaus emphasizes Catherine’s spurning by Henri for Diane with hyperbolic humor. In real life, de Poiters had a lot of influence in the court, most probably because she was twenty years older and more experienced in court politics and intrigue than both Henry and Catherine who were the same age. In the farcical nature of this segment King Henri, Queen Cathy and Diane are hyper-modernized, two-dimensional caricatures to prove the point that women, subject to their husband’s whims, must swallow their subdued portion and be oppressed by them as Cathy was by Henri and Diane. The scene between Cathy and Diane where they scream ghetto-speak epithets to each other is funny and references pointed conflict that women will empathize with. Also, Adina Verson’s cooking lesson in a flippant direct address with a tray of chickens and squishy onion or two provides great humor at the outset of the scene.
Because Backhaus doesn’t indicate why, we are left with the impression that Diane de Poitiers (Aadya Bedi) is perceived to be superior to Catherine (Purva Bedi) for the reason that she is either younger or more flirtatious. The reason is more complicated. Nevertheless, as we note the death of Henri after a jousting match injury and Cathy’s rejection of Diane’s presence from court and removal from Henri’s will, we are heartened by a wonderful twist. The two women end up as friends. Cathy’s reasoning is sound; the court expects them to be enemies, however, as Cathy assumes the power that Henri excluded her from, Diane will become very useful as she was for Henri.
Thus, Backhaus emphasizes that only after the dismissive male husband dies are the women able to assist each other. The theme of how men pit women against each other to dominate and oppress is clear as is the women’s glorious freedom to shine after their oppressors leave the planet for what was a man’s world becomes a woman’s world open to redefinition.
Each of the vignettes carries this theme of wives being freed coming out from the shadows of their marriage partners. In the second segment another male death occurs: Hemingway’s. Backhaus places us at his funeral with his two former wives and current wife attending as Big Ern (Sathya Sridharan) gives his own eulogy which he wrote and ends with, “I have nothing to say to my wives: Mary Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and Hadley Richardson. And Pauline.” However, with the exception of Pauline, the mistress who died, the three played by Purva Bedi, Adina Verson and Aadya Bedi have much to say about Hemingway. And what begins with a discussion of themselves after their divorces ends with a humorous “hate fest” about Hemingway as they drink toasts to his death and share the truth with each other about their relationships with him.
To one extent or another each admits that they allowed him to co-opt their lives as he knocked them out from under themselves in his writings, while they helped him with his manuscripts, served him and took a back seat to his glory. With the admission “we can never write ourselves because he wrote our history for us,” each proclaims what they think Hemingway’s legacy is for them, infusing a description of themselves in the terse Hemingway style.
Of course the irony is that they are still under his shadow not being able to write or live their own legacy apart from him and his “glory.” Coming late to this realization, but encouraged by the others into understanding, Mary (his last wife) joins in with Hadley and Martha into agreeing that his writing was “shitty.” And in the apex of the vignette, the three women like the witches out of Macbeth together ignite an act of symbolic freedom releasing themselves from their identity of “nothingness” to move themselves out from under Hemingway’s oppressive machismo.
The third vignette takes place in 1921 India and begins from the perspective of a colonial (Mr. Patterson) appointed to guarantee the relationship of England with the Maharaja Madho Singh II by halting the influence of the witch Roop Rai who gives healing sessions to the Maharaja. When Patterson threatens violence to stop the healing sessions which he thinks are dangerous to the Maharaja’s life, Roop Rai places him under a powerful spell that humiliates and vanishes him. In the process the Roop Rai, the Maharaja and the Maharini pledge their unity to each other in resisting colonialism and affirm the future freedom of India that will redefine itself out from under its oppressive marriage to England. But the majesty of the moment is forgotten with the names of the individuals, especially Roop Rai whose genius contributed toward the freedom gained.
Backhaus continues the theme of women’s witchery and power and carries it into the present time in the last vignette under supervision of a picture of Virginia Woolf, the classic, misunderstood feminist of her time. In the basement of a fictional university a witch (a member of a commune of witches on campus who have found a safe space to practice their craft) creates a spell. During the spell an acolyte is encouraged to remove the shackles of her forebears whose mores kept women in demeaned servitude as she untethers herself from “the visions made by men.”
Beginning with an incantation that the acolyte repeats as the witch stirs up the ritual toward freedom, “Everything about you is right,” becomes the rallying cry that gives her confidence to examine her ancestry and claim an evolved identity where she can be anything and everything. In this final segment the acolyte, like the other burgeoning feminists we have seen before her (Catherine, Mary, Martha, Hadley, Roop Rai) finds herself, then defines her own being in a poetic direct address to the audience. Purva Bedi Adina Verson and Aadya Bedi and Sathya Sridharan play the various parts.
Wives is a heady production revealing how women in various times discovered their power after the male presence whether paternalistic, macho, colonial or socially institutional is disappeared. Backhaus’ ideas cohere in the script but at times become disjointed in the transference to live stage performance. Some of the problem is in the line delivery; sometimes accents get in the way of intelligibility so that meaning and connections are lost.
The conclusion was beautifully rendered, however, and I couldn’t help but consider in the hope expressed was the great tragedy of the women who had gone before whose genius was repressed by institutional power (paternalistic, colonial, chauvinistic) because of fear. It is as if women, not being allowed or not allowing themselves to realize the fullness of their completion was a wasteful sin of the ages. Backhaus’ work is a great encouragement to the present and future generations of women in the hope that the past will not raise its ugly, deformed head to devour the present strides in women’s enlightenment and contributions of their greatness.
Kudos to the creative team: Reid Thompson (scenic design) Valérie Thérèse Bart (costume design) Amith Chandrashaker (lighting design) Kate Marvin (sound design and original music) J. Jared Janas (hair and wig design).
Wives runs at Playwrights Horizons (West 42nd St. between 9th and 10th) with no intermission until 6th October. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfuka is a genre hybrid (comedy, musical, fantasy) that boasts sterling music, fine choreography and movement, and elements of the fantastic and supernatural all in the service of monolithic themes and blockbuster issues that woman have been grappling with for centuries, regardless of race or culture. In this world premiere written by Tori Sampson and directed by Leah C. Gardiner, the playwright focuses on cultural folkways of beauty as a blessing and a curse for the one who is beautiful and also for those who are the “un-beautiful” or average looking. Caveat, there are no “ugly” women or men in the play. However, when one is “the most beautiful of all,” everyone else is ugly.
Every culture has it beauty standards. However, ideals promoted in advertising, the diet industry, the fashion industry, etc., create the values of appearance fascism that render mirrors and scales the vehicles of anathema and self-excoriation for young and old women of every culture. The beauty myth is not a myth but a very real stigma that women must conquer during their lives. Unless the strength of a woman’s soul is built up, self recriminations about appearance fostered by the cultural beauty police (in fashion, advertising, etc.) greatly influence all aspects of womanhood, education, career, and can impact the friends a woman has, who she marries, the society she is accepted in and her ability to float on the currents of lifestyle both virtual and live.
The playwright makes the subject of beauty and the issues it raises front and center the first five minutes of this fanciful/magical-realism styled production with her protagonist Akim (Nike Uche Kadri) who is beautiful and thin and who the girls in her social strata resent because they do not look “as good as she.” The casting for the production is genius because all of the girls are adorable and in fact, the rival of the protagonist could be said to be more attractive, depending upon one’s subjective opinion.
The arc of the plot development revolves around the interactions of Akim with her ultra protective father (Jason Bowen), her beauty encouraging mother (Maechi Aharanwa) and her school mates who front off on being her friends to entrap and destroy her. These include Massassi (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), Adama (Mirirai Sithole) and Kaya (Phumzile Sitole). Thrown in to escalate the conflict is the romantic interest Kasim (Leland Fowler) who Massassi and Akim fight over. Rotimi Agbabiaka portrays the Chorus as he narrates and guides the action.
Sampson’s protagonist who has been sheltered by her parents and especially her Dad because he fears her beauty will bring trouble upon her, has few social guideposts to help her recognize those who are truly friendly and those who are plotting against her. Thus, as a series of events unfolds, she is blind to the wickedness of Massassi who instigates her friends to drown Akim in the river. Massassi is motivated by jealousy, insecurity and fear that Akim’s beauty will steal Kasim from her. She reasons if Akim is dead, she will free the world and herself of the daily torment and misery she experiences because Akim exists. Like the witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, who attempts to kill Snow White, Massassi must eliminate her competition to end her suffering.
The notion that beauty standards provoke evil and harm when women focus on their outer appearance to the exclusion of everything else is an unshakable cultural phenomenon. Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia exemplify this harm; the obsession with plastic surgery and appearing youthful, undergoing physical mutilation to leave a good looking corpse at the end of life has become a fantastical reality that all women confront and succumb to or rebel against. One of Simpson’s themes in the play suggests that when individuals so concerned with appearance ignore the very reality of the soul and value of human beings, life itself and the appreciation of life’s wonders dissolve. The person becomes a vapid and empty non-person blown about by the next cultural trend or “beauty” style.
Paramount in the production is the theme that life is more than external appearances. The wholeness of life encompasses the soul, spiritual rebirth and regeneration away and apart from cultural mores that command women adhere to rigid appearance fascism. In a symbolic musical dance number, Simpson suggests the importance of spirituality to every individual when Akim undergoes a spiritual resurrection that lifts her soul beyond the attention of the physical, empirical world. The true realm of life is not the empirical, material world which one sees with the eyes but what one apprehends in one’s spirit, the invisible world of the supernatural.
With Akim’s transformation, Simpson clarifies that only spiritual regeneration can fill the emptiness and underlying void that attention to external beauty cannot fulfill. And indeed, by the end of the play, we see that encouragement to develop inner self-love and confidence obviates Massassi’s hellish, obsessive torment for not measuring up to the culture’s appearance fascism. Instead, she defines her own standards of beauty and internalizes them, focusing on her true self.
The production raises intriguing questions about how each of us negotiates cultural folkways that can be destructive if we internalize them and punish ourselves for “falling short.” The themes are powerful and varied. The arc of the play’s development moves from realism to mysticism which may be confusing to some. The conclusion ends with a construct that “all is a dream.” Yes, this is contrived, but Massassi’s dialogue brings the themes and the story together. Indeed, this play is about ideas and human archetypes. I appreciate the playwright’s intent and know the themes to be vital ones.
One caveat about performances. The finest portrayals were by the actors who slowed down, projected and didn’t allow “accents” to get in the way of the playwright’s wonderful meaning. The words are key, the dialogue is king. The audience must understand every word the actors project. This was sadly not the case in this production where the tongues sometimes tripped over the accents garbling the dialogue.
Kudos to the creative artists responsible for scenic design (Louisa Thompson), lighting design (Matt Frey), costume design (Dede Ayite) and original music and sound design (Ian Sot). Without their shining efforts, the production would have been a drab mess. Musicians Rona Siddiqui on percussion and keyboard, and Erikka Walsh on percussion and base were fantastic. Special kudos to choreographer Raja Feather Kelly whose symbolic dance numbers superbly conveyed the playwright’s themes and solidified them. Leah C. Gardiner’s excellent staging brought together the various elements to ingeniously effect this production and make it memorable.
If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka runs with no intermission at Playwrights Horizons (42nd Street between 9th and 10th) in an extension until 5 April. For tickets on their website CLICK HERE.