Untitled Feminist Show
nytheatre.com review by Stephen Cedars
January 14, 2012
Don't let the name fool you. Paired with the advertisements that promise six nude performers, the title of Young Jean Lee's Untitled Feminist Show promises to deliver nothing if not extreme confrontation. Which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing—she's dabbled with confrontational ideas in many of her plays, often with great success, yet didacticism isn't for everyone.
But the freeform exhilaration of this show is far more resonant in the way it refuses to ever settle on any enduring perspective. In her director's notes, Lee explains that her intention was to sculpt an experience of gender fluidity, a "world in which people could identify and be however they wanted regardless of their sex." In this she's largely successful. But at the same time, this explanation perhaps is also too rigidly academic for a show in which six nude women, performers drawn from the downtown burlesque, dance and performance arts communities, enact various scenarios with great humor and energy, and without ever speaking a word. The soundtrack is key—it plays almost entirely throughout the show, more as a track list than consistent score in the way it shifts from classical suite to slasher rock to pulsing beats sampled from Radiohead. And the various "scenes" (perhaps vaudeville acts would be a better way to describe them) are equally eclectic: a dumb-show fairy tale, a slow-motion bar brawl/wrestling match, a mimed compendium of proscribed feminist duties, a childish song made of la-la's…and these all off the top of my head. On a stark set with strong, distinct lighting, the strict choreography often suggests a music video shoot, and still there's an incessant surplus of character in the show, with each performer shifting each of her own distinct personalities to match the situation.
The overall effect is that of Disney's Fantasia if it explored gender archetypes to a larger catalogue of music than classical. The aesthetic and lack of overt structure allows for a piece full of evocative, theatrical moments that pass as quickly as they're established, leaving little time for much intellectual complication. And yet the "feminist" roots of the show do allow for serious contemplation once the dazzle fades. The constant nudity quickly loses its power to provoke, and instead merges with the carnival theatricality to confound our expectations—when an actress suddenly shifts her character and embodies different aspects of gender, her female form adds a new layer of meaning, until by the end of the show the nudity comes off as a sort of malleable costume. And while the show is full of easily recognizable critiques of archetypal behaviors—like the aforementioned enactment of women's "duties" or a too-frequent emphasis on male aggression—the joy and gusto of the performers translates as a celebration of womanhood. I find myself wondering how the show would play if it were reproduced with male actors—would it seem more or less confrontational? Would audiences read men "playing" women more as a queer statement than a gender statement? Would the concept of fluidity translate to an experience?
But not only do I not want to see men do the play, I don't want to see different performers. These six women accomplish a magnificent feat in the show. Each gets her own spotlight moment, and the range of their stage personas and extent of their training is abundantly clear. I save special praise for Becca Blackwell, whose work I know well through her years with the always-excellent Circus Amok, and Amelia Zirin-Brown (aka Lady Rizo), who provides perhaps the most confrontational of the show's scenarios without ever dropping her abundant absurdity.
The whole thing is surprisingly tight (due in no small part to the excellent choreography), and while perhaps the episodic nature prohibits the show from reaching any apex, that's no detriment towards enjoyment. One leaves with the sense that he might see a totally different set of acts the next night, so lively and seemingly spontaneous does it play. It seems entirely possible you might enjoy it enough to show up again to find out.