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January 25, 2012

"Untitled Feminist Show" Offers Naked Truths

Every once in awhile, I like to venture outside my theatergoing comfort zone.  One of the surest ways for me to do that is to see a play by the comfort-be-damned playwright Young Jean Lee.  And Lee’s latest, Untitled Feminist Show, which opened at the Baryshnikov Arts Center last week as part of PS 122’s COIL Festival, certainly fits the bill.

Untitled Feminist Show is a series of silent vignettes about women’s lives that are performed by six women, each as naked as the day she was born.  There’s no narrative, no dialog, no scenery and, of course, no costumes, except for some tiny pink parasols.

The mise-en-scène is generated by Raquel Davis’ subtle lighting design, some mystifying projections by Leah Gelpe and, most notably, by the excellent sound design of Chris Giarmo and Jamie McElhinney which features music that ranges from genteel Baroque to head-banging heavy metal. As Lee explains in a program note, the show is intentionally designed to “resist categorization.”

Defying categories is Lee’s specialty.  Her big breakthrough was the 2009 production of The Shipment, a satirical look at stereotypes about African-Americans that drew attention, in part, because it was written by a Korean-American woman.

I couldn’t get a ticket to the limited run of The Shipment but I did catch Lee’s next show, a perplexing retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear in which the mad monarch never appears (click here to read my review). 

Untitled Feminist Show is equally demanding.  In the program note, Lee explains that she likes to cast “my shows before I write them and then write them based on conversations with my cast.” 

This time, she has recruited performers from the worlds of dance, burlesque and the downtown theater scene and then challenged them with the following question: “What would it look like if people with female bodies enjoyed unlimited possibilities for transformation?”

The bodies of her performers run the gamut from petite to near-obese, creating kind of a raunchier version of those old Dove ads that always seemed to be smugly patting themselves on the back for showing women of varying body types. But the nudity quickly ceased to be a distraction over the course of the one-hour show. The emphasis switched to what the women did instead of how they looked.

Some of the answers that the performers and Lee devised to answer her transformation question are witty (little girls outfoxing a wicked witch) others are moving (two women meeting and falling in love in a lovely pas de deux) but at least one (a mime sequence detailing one woman's experience of giving men oral sex) suggested a misandry that made me far more uncomfortable than being flashed repeatedly.

The hipster audience the night my friend Priscilla and I saw the show seemed delighted with all of it—and, I suspect, with themselves for being there to see it.  And, despite my reservations, I have to say that when I woke up the next morning and walked past the mirror in my bedroom, I felt a comfort with my own body that I haven’t felt for a longtime.

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