The Audacity: Women Speak - Sleeping Weazel
The Audacity: Women Speak – Sleeping Weazel
Review by James Wilkinson
The Audacity: Women Speak is produced by Sleeping Weazel. Conceived and arranged by Charlotte Meehan. Directed by Tara Brooke Watkins. Video Design by Elliott Mazzola. Scenic design: Rita Roy. Lighting Design: Bridget K. Doyle. Costume Design: Mirta Tocci.
There are two elements to The Audacity: Women Speak, Sleep Weazel’s new multimedia production, that I think rather perfectly sum up its goals for the audience. The first is a visual motif created by lighting designer Bridget K. Doyle. A patch of light will come up on an empty spot on the stage, one of the seven women who comprise the cast will enter said space and then they begin to speak. Although it may seem like an incidental detail, the order of that sequence is vital to what they’re doing. The second element comes about halfway through the show during a barrage of video clips featuring the current Commander in Chief making sexist remarks as far back as the eighties and as recent as his presidency. As the clips play, the woman on stage begin to groan. First in frustration, then it rises to anger before finally, they’re filling the space with their screams. Something is being released.
We like to talk a big game about how artists are the ones who push into new and uncomfortable areas, but the truth of the matter is that there are times when the arts struggle to keep up with the culture. I think that the era of #MeToo is one of those times. We know that there’s been a collective reckoning and we want to discuss it in a theatrical context, but how does it fit into that context? Perhaps traces of this reckoning have been present in our art for years, but how do we address it now when we’re looking at it, dead in the eyes? It’s a messy process of trial and error to figure out exactly how it is we’re going to do that. The Audacity is Sleeping Weazel’s attempt at kick starting that conversation and it’s one that I think mostly succeeds at what it’s doing. This is a production that wades into the mess to see what it can find and we’re rewarded with some genuinely powerful and gripping moments.
The production creates that power by dispensing with the traditional hero’s journey. There is no arc to follow, instead we’re treated to something that’s probably more comparable to an arrangement of music. Charlotte Meehan creates the script by taking the real stories of women and splicing them together to form a narrative web. In bite-sized bits, the seven actresses on stage give voice to the stories on everything from workplace sexism, bodily autonomy, cultural misogyny, sexual harassment and rape. The goal is to simply create a space that gives the women the chance to speak openly and with a brutal honesty about their own experiences. It brings to mind I, Snowflake, a devised piece the Boston-based company, Anthem Theatre mounted a few years ago. I, Snowflake covered similar ground, however, it focused more on reactions to the presidential election and was conceived pre-#MeToo. A lot has happened since then.
To be perfectly frank, I’ve never been a huge fan of this kind of “journalism theatre” where the text is created with real-life accounts (The Laramie Project, for example, is one work that’s I’ve always struggled with in part because of its structure). Here though, I was able to connect with the work and I think that part of it has to do with gusto that the performers put into the piece. When they get the chance to speak, they dig in their heels, grab ahold of the microphone and let the audience have it. They tap into the rage and sorrow at the heart of so many of these stories and it’s incredibly affecting. As always, it’s the small moments that really knock on you on back. The look on an actress’ face as she listens to another women telling a story becomes almost as devastating as what’s being said.
At times the production can be truly harrowing and audiences should be warned that this isn’t going to be a walk in the park. There are a few moments of tenderness and joy, but there’s very little in the way of humor. What we’re walking into is a kind of theatrical pressure cooker that doesn’t let up once it gets started. There are downsides to the choices made about the play’s structure. The lack of a larger arc means that the production never feels like it’s moving anywhere and consequently can make some of the proceedings feel a bit one-note. But this isn’t a production that’s looking to bring us to a convention moment of catharsis. We’re meant to sit in the mood that’s being created.
When I went to see The Audacity, I brought along a friend whose theatrical instincts I trust implicitly. Sitting at the bar post-show, we got into a discussion of what we had just seen. I had liked the show, she hadn’t. Her point of contention partly had to do with what she perceived as the production presenting the women’s stories without building towards a larger point. “I already know all of this,” she said. “I live it. So who is this production supposed to be for?”
On the way home I kept turning over that question in my head. The answer I came up with was that, well, partly it’s for me. The production makes use of a number of clips from advertisements, TV shows, stand-up comedy specials and news reports highlighting the ways that media frames women. As clip after clip plays where sexual assault is downplayed or used for laughs and that women are objectified, you’re given a small taste of the crap they put up with on a daily basis. I’m not arguing that now I understand everything, but being given a window into another’s experience is part of the possibilities of the art form. The device also serves to highlight that the culture still has a long way to go in figuring out how to handle the men accused of sexual assault. Looking closer to home, the Boston theater community has yet to really grapple with the allegations of sexual assault made against playwright Israel Horovitz. The founder of Gloucester Stage was held in high esteem within the local community while knowledge of his behavior remained an open secret for years. How we grapple with that fact, I don’t know, but as The Audacity shows us, ignoring the issue isn’t going to solve anything.
As a contrast to my friend’s comment, I’ll also say that I saw the show with an audience comprised of about three other males and seventy females. During the show, the women in the audience sat, barely moving and staring at the stage as if afraid to blink. They recognized what was happening in front of them and seemed frozen by the release of anger. Maybe that act of recognition won’t fix everything. But it could be a start.
The Audacity: Women Speak is presented by Sleeping Weazel in Nicholas Martin Hall at the Boston Center for the Arts March 28-April 6, 2019.
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.sleepingweazel.com