At the theater, furious rebuttals in the age of #MeToo
In a recent interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN, author Rebecca Traister pointed to a large, gaping hole in the history books: Namely, that they have habitually minimized the intensity and the effectiveness of women’s anger as a force for social change.
“We’ve never been taught the story or given the view of women’s anger as politically potent,’’ said Traister, whose book “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger’’ was published last fall. “Women’s anger, even when it has existed, has often been covered over by the people telling the story of it.’’
At this moment, though, that story is being forcefully told on stages from Boston to Broadway. The anger of women, and their determination to fight back against the role of systemic misogyny in making them feel undervalued and unsafe in the world, has formed the basis of recent and current productions as different as Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s “The Little Foxes,’’ Sleeping Weazel’s “The Audacity: Women Speak,’’ Flat Earth Theatre’s “Not Medea,’’ Also Known As Theatre’s “Extremities,’’ and the riveting “What the Constitution Means to Me,’’ at New York’s Helen Hayes Theater.
Even generally lighthearted classics like Lerner & Loewe’s “My Fair Lady,’’ George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion’’ (from which “My Fair Lady’’ was adapted), and Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate’’ now resonate differently, having been tweaked by contemporary directors to emphasize the defiance of their incensed female protagonists and the legitimacy of their grievances.
Doubtless this emphasis on women’s anger is driven in significant part by the heightened awareness of male misdeeds engendered by the #MeToo movement. But reflecting the experiences and feelings of half the population of the planet — and perhaps to some degree offering a cathartic outlet — is the kind of day-to-day work that theater should routinely do and is uniquely well-suited to do.
Because immediate audience feedback is such a central component of the art form, the impact can be instantly measured. I can attest that at recent performances of stage works channeling, expressing, and foregrounding women’s anger, the fervent reaction of female patrons could be summed up as: Me Too. To cite just one instance, when Kelli O’Hara tore through the number “I Hate Men’’ in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of “Kiss Me, Kate,’’ the response by female spectators inside Studio 54 signaled clearly that the song was registering not as a tantrum but as an expression of generalized disgust at the male gender.
In “What the Constitution Means to Me,’’ playwright-performer Heidi Schreck emphasizes that “I love men,’’ adding with a laugh: “I’m the daughter of a father!’’ Then she stops laughing and notes: “But the facts are extreme.’’ Indeed. Schreck lays out those facts in unblinking and powerfully compelling fashion (New York Times critic Jesse Green wrote that Schreck’s play “is angrier and more pointed now’’ than during its earlier run off-Broadway). She uses the nation’s founding document as a lens through which to examine centuries of unchecked violence against women, including a few harrowing chapters of her own family history, and asks a question that cuts to the heart of the lofty promises contained in the Constitution: “What does it mean that the document will not protect us from the violence of men?’’
Some members of the audience were brought to the verge of tears at the performance I attended when Schreck recounted stunning statistics about, for instance, the number of American women who have been killed by “violent male partners.’’ She confessed that she has to get that out of her mind just to “get through the day,’’ but then added, in haunting words that countless women would doubtless agree with: “Except, I think, the knowledge of it is always there. Even if you don’t know the statistics, I think you can feel the truth of it underneath everything . . . humming.’’
Of course, this is not an era when women need to look very far beneath the surface to find fresh reasons for concern and fury. In the fall of 2016, Donald Trump won the White House — defeating Hillary Clinton, the first major-party female nominee in US history — even though he was heard boasting on the “Access Hollywood’’ tape about grabbing women’s genitals and has been accused by numerous women of sexual misconduct (which he has denied). In the fall of 2017, the #MeToo movement took off on Twitter, triggering a near-daily flood of revelations about sexual misconduct by powerful men that continues to this day. Last fall, psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers, which did not prevent Kavanaugh from being confirmed to a lifetime seat on the nation’s highest court, where he could rule for decades on issues affecting the lives of women.
Perhaps nowhere among recent local productions is the rage many women feel toward President Trump more scaldingly captured than in Sleeping Weazel’s “The Audacity: Women Speak,’’ a drama about sexual violence and harassment conceived and arranged by Charlotte Meehan, with contributions from more than 30 other women. One woman in “The Audacity’’ recounts being raped by a classmate when she was younger, then says bitterly: “I relive this every time 45 opens his filthy mouth. Words turn to sewage coming out from that hate-filled, smug face.’’
A combination of women’s anger and determined action has defined several other productions in the Boston area and on Broadway. In Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes’’ (1939), Regina Giddens (indelibly portrayed by Anne Gottlieb at Lyric Stage), who is seething at being denied her rightful share of the family inheritance because she is a woman, finds a way to ruthlessly outmaneuver her two brothers and gain the fortune that had eluded her. In William Mastrosimone’s “Extremities’’ (1982), a young woman named Marjorie (played by Alissa Cordeiro in the current Also Known as Theatre production) turns the tables on a would-be rapist and then proceeds to take drastic action while pondering the question of what, exactly, constitutes justice for her attacker.
In Flat Earth’s recent production of Allison Gregory’s “Not Medea’’ (2016), a haze of ambiguity surrounds a family tragedy involving a pediatric oncology nurse (Juliet Bowler, delivering a brave and intensely committed performance), but there is no mistaking her desire for vengeance on the narcissistic husband who has humiliated her by having an affair with a younger woman. In both the current Broadway revival of “My Fair Lady’’ and in the February “Pygmalion’’ at Cambridge’s Central Square Theater by the New York theater company Bedlam, Eliza Doolittle has more agency, and Henry Higgins pays a steeper price for his arrogant mistreatment of her, than is often the case in productions of those works.
Perhaps one measure of the pervasiveness and perniciousness of male prerogatives can be found in the fact that even Cher has to fight for autonomy. In “The Cher Show,’’ a bio-musical that is now at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway, a young Cher complains to Sonny Bono, her husband and costar in a TV variety show, that “It’s always a bunch of guys telling me what to do.’’ Sonny airily replies: “What are you gonna do? It’s a man’s world.’’
Cher pushes back hard against that notion (and you could say she spent the rest of her life refuting it). It’s a constant battle, but there is plenty of evidence onstage today that it is a battle that women are ready to wage for as long it takes.