I walked into The Signature Theatre wanting to give Eve Ensler's new play, Emotional Creature, a good review. Not because I like the style of theatre (I prefer things a little less straightforward, you could say), but because it is trying to do a good thing. Maybe it is a little popcorn feminist, a little Kids Incorporated poppy gender slumber party, but it is trying. At least, it is trying to try. However, instead of taking 5 steps forward for womankind, it takes 10 steps back and puts an early nineties mini skirt on the progress of the past 50 years.
I am a woman. I have dealt (and continue to deal) with 5 of the top 7 "Taboo Female Issues" (the first world country edition). I "challenge gender roles", say reviewers and my parents. I GET WHY THIS PLAY EXISTS. But I just can't. I honestly cannot. And there is little as valuable to my life force as honesty.
The production is a by-the-books multidisciplinary showcase for young actors. They all perform monologues, scenes, step numbers, bouncy songs, and choral idea shouting. It begins with a slideshow of pre-Instagram photos taken with phones. I took note of every single image... Basically they are all women hugging, taking road trips, smiling really hard, and doing cartwheels, along with flowers, art projects, poem bits, and bold red lips. The only non-smiling woman is a sad-looking gal behind a window pane, gazing out with her hand on the glass. Once the adult contemporary music flips to hip hop, the show begins. The first half is all after school clubhouse bits about facebook photos, lunchroom drama, eating disorders (all of the girls in the show are tiny... even the "fat" girl that snarfs a mini donut is maybe 120 pounds). It feels like it was written 20 years ago by the middle aged board of education in the most liberal county in Kansas. It moves from this very special teen episode into heavy Law and Order SVU drama about sex slavery. Then right back out of that into rollicking musical numbers about the freedom of short skirts and the emotional nature of women, with a few dramedy bits about being gay and Barbie.
The largest issue that I take with the show is that it presents facades of facades of the female experience. It may have been written in first person by real girls, but it is adapted by Ensler. Then it is performed by wonderful, but embarrassingly type-cast actresses (maybe the actresses could have helped Ensler generate material for something more genuine-feeling). Then it is cloaked in outdated performance styles. The production never gets within 20 feet of an honest moment. Beneath the facade, the outlook of the piece emerges with the final song: that women are emotional creatures, so don't tell us to not cry, don't put us in a box, my vagina is my own... it's a girl thing. The song actually repeats and repeats "it's a girl thing". As a logical creature, I wanted to sneak out the side door. On a similar note, I was quite bothered by the number about short skirts and how women wear them because they like the feel of the breeze on their thighs, not to be sexy to men. For one, Ally McBeal already tried that perspective over ten years ago. For two, if you sit in the East Village any night of the week and ask the gaggles of ladies wearing heels and minis why they are dressed as such, 0% will say because they like the feel of the breeze on their thighs. Most will say because they want to look hot. I get the point Ensler wants to make, but I personally will continue to wear pants and not feel any less a woman for it.
Despite my visceral, negative reaction to the show, the performers are all wonderful, skilled, charming ladies. Olivia Oguma is particularly solid with the comic timing, and Joaquina Kalukango is often able to transcend the material and create beautiful moments. They all work well together and I look forward to seeing them on stage for years to come.