26 August 2014

We Are Seven: Pleiades at the Phoenix Theatre

photograph of a detail of the Pleiades poster, which was designed by Emily C. Martin

Last Saturday I was at the Phoenix Theatre in San Francisco to see Pleiades, an impressive new play by Marissa Skudlarek, directed by Katja Rivera. It is described on the playbill as "a world-premiere play about seven sisters in 1971, facing the feminist future," which pretty much sums it up. I’ll tell you right now: go see this play if you can (scroll down to the end for information on remaining performance dates and tickets).

As the title indicates, Greek mythology underpins the story: our protagonists are seven sisters, mirroring the seven daughters of (according to most versions of their story) Atlas and a sea nymph. They range in age from early teens to mid-20s, and dwell by the sea, in their summer house in the Hamptons. They are celebrating the Fourth of July – Independence Day. There's also their visiting cousin Diane, who, like Diana/Artemis the virgin huntress, is associated with the moon, and is strongly independent to the point of ferocity; one of her stories mirrors the myth of Diana and Acteon, and she too, like the goddess, has a twin brother who is a golden boy and a healer. This Apollo figure does not appear in the play, but there is one man on the scene, their slightly older neighbor and family friend, Bruce, who is romantically involved with more than one of the sisters. The plot, which I will avoid describing in detail (though certain key events will not be a surprise to anyone familiar with Greek mythology, particularly the behavior of Zeus), takes off from there.

It's slightly comic that the lustful male here is named Bruce, since in the 1970s that was a stereotypically "gay name," but I'm guessing it was chosen because it rhymes with Zeus. Like that god, Bruce is associated with the sky (he was a bomber pilot in Vietnam, and his long-term goal is to be an astronaut and walk on the moon – in which regard see the reference above to women's association with the moon), and also like that god, he is powerful and often heedless in his pursuit of what he desires. There are other mythological allusions in the dialogue and situations, as well as references to nursery rhymes and fairy tales, reminding you that these girls, so sophisticated in many ways, are also, in the way of people their age, younger than they think they are. These things add resonance to the play, a significance beyond its mostly realistic surface, though you don't need to catch all of them to understand or appreciate what's going on.

In addition to playing off mythology, Skudlarek is doing some other difficult things in this play, and she does them with remarkable assurance, considering that this is, I believe, her first full-length play. She evokes a time period that’s far enough in the past so that it needs to be consciously evoked, yet recent enough so that many audience members can check her version against their memories; she has characters discuss and argue about social issues while sounding like actual people and not members of a debate club; she writes about feminism without reducing either the women or the men to caricatures; and she handles a large cast adroitly.

The time is evoked partly through costumes and props (the record of Judy Collins singing Both Sides Now, which skips since it’s been played so often; the dog-eared copy of The Bell Jar; the girls lying out in the sun to get tans, without a thought of sun screen; the girls ironing their hair to achieve those long, flat, parted-in-the-middle Ali McGraw-type tresses) and partly through language: for example, kinky as an adjective describing sex – that usage was so common in the 1970s and now you never hear it; pigs (spoken by the militant Diane) as a term for police; and, of course, male chauvinist pig – that was huge in the 1970s and then completely disappeared, to such an extent that it’s a verbal madeleine for me – I hear it and I can practically see the shag carpeting and the harvest gold/avocado green appliances. (When the term was used out of the blue in Einstein on the Beach I almost fell out of my chair, I was so pulled into a past time and place.) I kept waiting for “fem-libber” and “bra-burner” too, but to her credit the playwright handles these things with a light touch – there’s nothing campy in the presentation of what was in many ways a stylistically (and deliberately so) outré decade; these are the things we take for granted as part of our daily life, until, though we barely notice their disappearance, they’re gone, and when we remember them, we realize that our past, our youth (such as it was), is gone as well.

The feminism of the 1970s is also skillfully evoked, not just in its rhetoric (male chauvinist pigs!) but in particular issues and behaviors, both pro and con: the consciousness-raising sessions (there is a gathering early on which Diane and some of the older sisters refer to as a “consciousness-raising session” and some of the younger ones refer to as a “tea party,” and they’re both correct); there’s the smirky accusations that feminists "need love" or might even be lesbians, which calls out the “What? No! of course not!” reactions even from the liberal in those very early days of the gay liberation movement; there's the way the menstrual cycle, newly exalted by women like Diane as part of women's mystical connection with the universe, also underlies many anti-feminist views (women were often described with code words such as moody, undependableirrational, physically weak); there are the enraged slogans (“Men are pigs!”) alongside naïve rhetoric about bringing “women’s values” to the public sphere (a view directly contradicted by another major strand of 1970s feminism, the one that held that women were equal to men, which turns out to mean just as likely to be stupid and greedy, uncaring and incompetent, a view that sadly seems borne out by reality). Feminism in the 1970s is obviously a vast and complicated topic, and Skudlarek has astutely focused on how it overlapped with – was fed by and fought with – the "sexual revolution" of the late 1960s, as well as other reform and social justice causes, such as the anti-war movement, and on how, again, it was fed by and fought with these young women’s lives of bourgeois privilege, and their consciousness of their privileges, and the blurry and sometimes coincidental boundaries between social conformity and their true desires.

This may make the play sound grim and preachy, but it’s not: this is summer at a lovely beach house, and some lines are funny enough to make you laugh out loud, and the talk about feminist issues arises naturally from the thoughts, moods, and experiences of the young women, woven in with lovelorn gossip, family jokes and other secret things (some very serious, some less so), and talk about parties, fashion, and popular movies like Love Story. One of the reasons I usually dislike “issue plays” is that the dialogue tends to sound like position papers, and you can feel the playwright behind the scenes carefully making sure that all standard viewpoints are represented while also making it clear that certain views are to be considered the correct ones. Something I really valued about this play is that you never get that feeling; the characters express opinions (sometimes profound, sometimes fatuous), and their opinions clearly come from who they are and what they've experienced as individuals.

They will contradict themselves, as real people do, without making us feel that the play’s argument or the speaker’s personality is flawed: Diane, who insists early on that “Men are pigs and the police are pigs too,” will later, when the action takes a somber turn, urge one of the sisters to call the police, and this isn't an exposure of weakness in her or in what she’s been saying; it’s an illuminating example of the difference between what we think we believe and what we assume and rely on – perhaps what we really believe – when we need to take action, and it’s also to some extent an expression of some of her class-based assumptions about how she and the sisters will ultimately be treated. In short, the characters and their stories drive the discussion, not the other way around. I've sat through enough plays where the opposite was the case to appreciate the achievement here.

One thing that helps with that achievement is the multiplicity of voices – there’s at least one, and usually several, responses to any particular statement or action. I’m fine with solo shows, or two-handers, or classics boiled down to only three actors, but I can’t help but be aware that the driving force behind such shows is often economics rather than aesthetics, and even if, like the boy who reads the newspaper out loud in Our Mutual Friend, “he do the police in different voices,” many contemporary plays still feel underpopulated to me. It’s a relief to see a large cast, who are actual distinct individuals and not just funny accents out of one mouth. Even before it’s made clear in the dialogue, I could tell which of the seven sisters were older, middle, and younger – this is the kind of thing I don’t usually discuss here, but I’m one of six children, and I really loved the family dynamics in this play.

I frequently had to smile in recognition at the shifting alliances, the occasional spitefulness and the underlying solidarity, the authoritative, sometimes condescending tone of the older siblings, the silliness and then the wisdom of the younger ones (I did feel that perhaps the very youngest sister was made, once too often, to have insight beyond her years), and the turbulence of the middle child, not quite mature enough to be accepted by the older sisters, and too mature to be grouped with the younger. I loved that while the younger sisters are going on about Ali McGraw, the middle sister had kind of a Liza Minnelli thing going on. She’s the one who’s reading Plath and mourning the death of Jim Morrison. And Bruce, too, is allowed his voice; he could so easily have been a caricature, this lone man among the women, this alpha male scoffing at feminism among the newly enlightened feminists, this tennis-playing sun-kissed son of the Hamptons, but you feel his strength, his privilege, his rage, his fears – you understand who he is.

At the end of the Greek myth, the Pleiades are transformed into stars; I won’t give away the ending of the play, but there is a transformation here, too, a more earthly one, which means complicated and ambiguous and perhaps unsatisfying to some: a complex resolution which, however mixed in its long-term effects, and though some of the sisters disagree with it, and though the audience may also debate it afterwards, allows the sisters to move forward (away from Bruce, and by implication away from his friends, their parents), and towards independence (as noted, the action takes place over Independence Day).

The ensemble is strong across the board: Erika Bakse as Diane, Paul Rodrigues as Bruce, and the seven sisters: Monica Ammerman as Teresa, Kailah Cayou as Meredith, Miranda Hanrahan as Kelly, Annabelle King as Alison, Susannah Lee as Moira, Emily Ludlow as Sarah, and Amy Nowak as Elaine.

The Phoenix Theatre is located on the sixth floor at 414 Mason Street (at Geary), about half a block up from the Geary and Curran Theaters in San Francisco, so it's very easy to get to via public transportation (if you take BART, it's the Powell stop, then walk up Powell or Mason to Geary). The remaining performances are Thursday - Saturday, 28 - 30 August, at 8:00. Again, if you can make one of those performances, I strongly recommend going. For tickets, and further information on the cast and the play, visit the production's website here.


John Marcher said...

A really marvelous and thoughtful post. So much so I bought a ticket for Thursday.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thank you, I'm glad you bought a ticket. I look forward to hearing your reactions over at A Beast in a Jungle. http://abeastinajungle.com/