nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
February 26, 2010
Uncorseted is the fringey-est of fringe shows. It's deliberately unpolished, knowingly arch, and centers on a vaguely politicized theme (in this case, an unfocused examination of the nature of gender and sexual identity). It also refuses to bow to the status quo—no program for this FRIGID Festival entry—and positively revels in its potty/brainy humor. Fake breasts, dildos, simulated sex abound, as do references to George Sand, Sigmund Freud, and Gertrude Stein. Uncorseted is unbound, and, at times, awful, but deliberately so. The company shows genuine glee—clearly they're enjoying themselves and the play— and no one takes anything too seriously. Joy pervades Uncorseted; there's a sense of giddiness here that almost trumps its inconsistencies. Then again, those inconsistencies are clearly intentional. Uncorseted is one big joke, a loud raspberry blown in the face of convention. It's supposed to be sloppy, but you can't help wishing it was more adventurous.
Uncorseted tells the story of a disparate group of people whose fates intertwine around the fencing exhibition at the 1893 World Colombian Exposition in Chicago. A determinedly louche European aristocrat, the Countess Cornelia, is in town with her "lesbian sex vixens," to prove that women have as much a right to compete in fencing as men. Meanwhile, a harassed chambermaid kills a would-be rapist in her room, and seizing the chance to reinvent herself, she assumes his male identity. In a third plot, stolid 19th century everyman Douglas realizes he's attracted to men, but he refuses to acknowledge his sexuality openly. Meanwhile, he's being pursued by the daffy Felicity, who is in turn being pursued by Douglas's woebegone sister, Penelope.
To underscore the play's meditation on gender identity, most roles are cast with opposite genders. Douglas is played by a woman, while most of the women are played by men. It's an apt, if unoriginal, device, and one whose dissonance remains fundamentally unexplored here. Intellectual frisson is quickly thrown over in favor of lots of slapstick and sword-fighting by women and men in bare-breasted drag, replete with fake nipples painted onto nude bras. (Apparently, there really was a historical tradition of women who defied societal norms by fencing semi-nude.)
The troupe behind Uncorseted have plenty of grit and spirit. There are some lively performances: the knowing, velvet-voiced Countess, the sexually-awakened Penelope, and the meditative George Sand (the name an obvious tribute to the famed 19th century woman writer). The historical era is well-researched; the dialogue evokes the 1890s as much as it makes fun of the period's reserve. And there are some surprisingly poetic asides, as when George decides upon the last name "Sand" for his new identity, saying he will now be "one of the multitude, a grain of sand."
Still, the company doesn't quite have the sophistication to carry off this burlesque of sexual politics. Beyond the opening sequence, in which the Victorian-costumed cast burst onstage by pushing open three panels on the back wall, transitions are extremely awkward. Long, unintended delays punctuate the beginning and end of each scene, as actors cope with set pieces or changing into costume. Props are dropped, buttons pop off of costumes, whispers are heard as actors struggle to determine their entrance. Yes, it's all supposed to be rough and tumble, but the gaffes distract from the work.
Uncorseted wrestles with big themes, but it seems almost afraid to really explore them in detail. Any musings on gender or sex are undercut by a determined jokiness that almost seems an excuse for not delving into any more complexity. In the end, the show feels like a cabaret act without the courage to say what it really wants.
Nevertheless, this company has its flashes of brilliance, and it would be interesting to see their take on the antic anarchy of a past avant-garde masterpiece like Ubu Roi or another new play of their own.