Femmes: A Tragedy: Theater Review
Clare Boothe Luce's classic comedy of manners, "The Women," is reimagined in Silverlake within a contemporary lesbian milieu.
Gina Young had a brief contretemps with the Pasadena Playhouse last year when it first canceled and then reinstated the production of her Tales of a Fourth Grade Lesbo out of hypersensitivity to the title. Well, fasten your seatbelts, because after a weekend run at Highways in Santa Monica, her Femmes: A Tragedy is reopening at the Lyric-Hyperion Theatre and Cafe in Silver Lake. The original version of Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women (1936) famously kept the men offstage, and in Young’s loose yet surprisingly faithful lesbian transformation, it is the butches who are bantered about and battled over, but never seen.
Luce’s play is like a dated house with superb bones, ready to be renovated in a major makeover. Here it barely remains recognizable, although most of the characters have their corresponding roles in the ur-text. “Ribald” is really not an adequate adjective to describe the catty dialogue and racy goings-on, all of which had the opening-night audience of insiders howling. The fine shadings of diverse sexual preferences on display may be difficult for the uninitiated to grasp as the gradations fly fast and furious, but there is enough explanatory exposition to allow us to keep up. (Ironically, the incessant allusions to myriad social networking modes were far more obscure and difficult for geezers to catch.)
Centered on an idealistic burlesque cooperative of all-femme variety performers, Young trenchantly captures the never-ending discourse of ideological discussion among these committed activists, even as the rhetoric ultimately takes a backseat to matters of the id and the heart. Many have tried over the years to imitate Luce’s ferocious ear, and this effort comes tantalizingly close by taking everything so much farther than Luce could have dared, though she might well have relished it. This rendition passionately argues for the exceptional variety of preference and experience in what may pass to an inattentive world as a singular subculture, where femininity is not a monolithic but a flexibly complex and unpredictable concept, and there are not opposing poles of gender but a universe of mix-and-match.
Though there are bumpy moments for the enthusiastic cast, everyone projects a hearty conviction for their archetypes, as unafraid to seem foolish as be righteous. Sara Ann Buccolo carries the center in the Norma Shearer role as the much-abused leader of the company, and Christine Treibel steals the last movement of the show as a drolly underplayed emcee from San Francisco whose confidence in her age and delight in the wisdom acquired through experience stands as an example to which all can aspire. Olivia Bellafontaine makes a chilling yet ultimately vulnerable Dona Juana, and she takes a splendid dancing turn, matched by a flamenco-flavored striptease by Kristelle Monterossa, who manages to channel her inner Lupe Velez. These women talk smart, are in control of their sense of selves if not necessarily their emotions, and live well, even, and perhaps especially when, they love badly.
Venue: Lyric-Hyperion Theatre & Cafe, Silver Lake (runs April 19-28) (reviewed prior, at Highways, Santa Monica)
Cast: Sara Ann Buccolo, Arielle Marie McFadden, Olivia Bellafontaine, Christine Treibel, Devri Richmond, Sarah Dryden, Alexandra Pinkston, Kristelle Monterrosa
Playwright-director: Gina Young
Lighting designer: Ed Cha
Set designer: Zumi Mizokami
Producers: Erin McGregor and Young