Feminist Killjoysby Christine Shan Shan Hou
Feminism is not a generous term. It is unwieldy, sticky, and rough around the edges. It can be enjoyably transgressive and liberating, or it can cause a lot of eye-rolling. Feminism riles up all sorts of responses, as it should, proving to be anything but comfortable.
Thus the bar is set for Young Jean Lee’s theater piece Untitled Feminist Show, which premiered in January at the Baryshnikov Arts Center as part of PS122’s Coil Festival. The program notes boast a hefty roster of collaborators including Faye Driscoll and Morgan Gould as the directors of choreography, and six performers with backgrounds that include experimental dance, theater, burlesque, and cabaret.
“What would it look like if people with female bodies enjoyed unlimited possibilities for transformation?” Lee provocatively asks in the program notes. The stage is carefully prepared for such transformations: A pristine, white floor serves as a blank slate, while a glowing three-dimensional screen suspended above offers endless possibilities for décor.
Together and all in the nude, the performers move through a hodgepodge of unimaginative sketches, acting out different caricatures who danced, occasionally sang, and interminably changed into one another. There is a marvelous selection of bodies in Untitled Feminist Show, and it is refreshing to see them together in one performance. Sadly, any individuality and potential are muddled by superficial choreography and playacting. Only superficial exchanges and shifts occur amongst the performers.
Amelia Zirin-Brown (a k a Lady Rizo) plays a hokey witch with Katie Pyle as her hobbling sidekick. Meanwhile, Becca Blackwell, Hilary Clark, and Regina Rocke merrily saunter around while holding frilly parasols. Zirin-Brown casts a spell on Clark and Blackwell while Pyle “eats” them in the back corner. Rocke predictably saves the day by knocking Zirin-Brown unconscious and setting Blackwell and Clark free from Pyle’s belly.
And the silly use of parasols doesn’t end there: The entire cast does a number with them, romping and leaping before coyly hiding behind them. The scene drags along slowly and painfully, not unlike Pyle’s hobbling creature dragging along its limp arm.
Later, Rocke and Pyle play lovebirds who press their palms together, gaze longingly into each other’s eyes, and take turns spooning onstage. There is a brief moment of tenderness here, but not one long enough to stir up our empathy.
A corny rock soundtrack blasts as Clark (one of the more physically daring performers in the piece) ferociously thrashes her body and bangs her head like a belligerent mosher. The scene turns into a fistfight between burlesque queen, World Famous BOB, and Clark while the others surround them, gawking and cheering all in—groan—slow motion.
In another solo, Blackwell morphs from a theatrical Broadway singer into a boxer, then into an elderly gentleman, a drunkard, a crying drunkard, and back into a singer. There is nothing subversive about the identities that Blackwell—or any of the performers, for that matter—enact.
I agree with Lee that identity, particularly gender, is always in flux, but Untitled Feminist Show skirts the messy complexities. Identity is not something that meaninglessly swerves from one cheesy stereotype to another. It can’t be slipped on and off, and it doesn’t have a clear starting point and ending point. Gender identities should be meticulously and continuously deconstructed, disputed, and questioned. Untitled only touches the surface of that conversation, resorting to contrived roles and substituting nudity for insight. Liberation doesn’t come from shallow celebrations but from the dirty bits that make us uncomfortable, scared, uncertain, and that eventually bring us to life.
About the Author
CHRISTINE SHAN SHAN HOU is a poet and arts writer living in Brooklyn, NY.