Monday, December 28, 2009

Or, at the Women's Project

Maggie Siff and Andy Paris in Or,

Or, (spelled with the punctuation intact as Or,), the recently-closed first production of the 2009-2010 season at the Women’s Project, is a delightful romp. Based on the life of Aphra Behn, Liz Duffy Adams’s lively, contemporary interpretation is full of highly theatrical devices and whimsical plot turns. The production, directed with fluid energy by Wendy McClellan, boasts three of the most appealing performances I’ve seen all year.

Behn was the English Restoration playwright known for writing bawdy comedies in the style of her 1660 moment, who also had a double life as a spy (code name “Astrea”) for the Empire. She was one of the first women to write publicly for the stage.

In a prologue typical of Restoration comedy, addressed directly to Or,’s audience, actor Kelly Hutchinson stands by a ghost light center stage and speaks to spectators as herself. She describes how the play we’re about to see will straddle different moments in history—from 1660 to 1960 to “now”—and brook utter disregard for binaries like male and female, gay and straight, night and day, and other common terms and ideas typically held in opposition. Hutchinson’s costume mixes historical and modern dress, and her speech, although in verse, is entirely contemporary and colloquial.

After her warm greeting, Hutchinson disappears with the ghost light to reveal a simple set: a 1660s-style writing table and chair down stage right; a multi-purpose ottoman and wardrobe stage left, both of which assume various uses throughout the production; and a requisite double door center stage, through which the two supporting principles (Hutchinson and Gian Murray Gianino—who replaced Andy Paris—both of whom masterfully cycle through multiple roles) come and go in their various guises (and disguises).

Aphra Behn, the lady of the hour, settles in at her desk with familiarity, ease, and a voracious need to write, delighted to be in the chair to which she obviously loves to retire. Played with charm, wit, and a flirtatious intelligence by Maggie Siff (of tv’s Mad Men), Or,’s Behn is a portrait of a woman defined by her work, who’s never happier than when she has a pen in her hand.

Adams’s portrait of the artist as a dedicated woman scribe underlines Behn’s historical status as a forgotten woman playwright recovered by scholars during second wave U.S. feminism in the mid-70s and 80s. Behn’s play, The Rover, in fact, has been parsed by feminist performance scholars like Elin Diamond for the ways in which it both hews to and pushes against the conventions of the form. In Or, Behn is a firecracker, sexually adventurous and open, confined to her boudoir by a society that can’t quite fathom the conjunction of “woman” and “writer,” terms usually kept apart by the conjunction that names the play.

Behn’s magnetism draws people to her. In Or, she’s approached to satisfy the emotional and physical whims of both King Charles II, who visits her at first disguised, to suggest a liaison, and then by Nell Gwynne, the actor known for her wit and style as an performer on the Restoration stage, as well as for her role as mistress to the King. Adams fancies Gwynne as a happily bisexual woman who makes love to Behn and later shares her bed with the King, whom Behn offers her with the magnanimity of someone who can take or leave the mechanics of heterosexual sex.

The trio’s polymorphously perverse ménage a trios is set, in the end, against the psychedelic backdrop of a scrim painted like a Peter Max poster, with a rich splash of primary and pastel colors drawn in the rounded cartoon-style hand of the 1960s black-light posters under which people listened to Pink Floyd and smoked weed.

The characters speak in a wonderful mash-up of idioms from 1660s blank verse, to 1960s colloquialisms, to contemporary references to, for example, a faltering economy, while their clothing quotes the style and cut of Restoration cloth. The King first presents himself to Behn as a kind of bandit, wearing a black velvet half-mask through which his eyes roll and roam with comic precision. His black cape and velveteen rounded hat make him appear aristocratic against Behn’s simple white dress, with its gathered bodice and soft folds. Nell Gwynne, on the other hand, wears functional breeches and a loose white shirt, the flowing costume of a free-spirited artist comfortable with her body from within and without, watching herself as she is accustomed to being watched by others.

Part of the fun of Or, is how quickly these characters hook up (as their liaisons would now be called). After quick exchanges of pleasantries, Charles and Gwynne both profess their love for and attraction to Behn, who requites both of them with easy amusement. Both her suitors kiss her, caress her, and hold her, attention to which she submits until her desk and her quill pen call her back to her work. In fact, Behn demonstrations through her actions that her work holds more allure than sex.

Invited through the door in the upstage center of the set to come to bed with either partner, Behn is willing, but not until she scribbles one more line or two on her sheaf of parchment paper. Her suitors wait, happily. In this idyllic world, there’s no end to desire and lust, but it’s matter-of-fact rather than urgent, and always concedes to Behn’s need to work. Or, as a result, becomes a play about a woman with agency, who writes her life as she lives it (and likewise lives what she writes).

The two supporting actors rotate through multiple roles in short order, providing much of the production’s comedy. Hutchinson primarily plays Gwynne, but also appears as Maria, the trusty and crusty servant, for which Hutchinson adopts a lower-class accent and a stooped posture to deliver the old woman’s pungent observations. Gianino, along with his role as Charles, plays Behn’s ne’er-do-well former consort, William, who arrives at her chambers intent on bilking her of whatever funds to which he can lay claim. Because he has to hide his presence, Will spends a lot of time popping in and out of the wardrobe, which gives Gianino time to make the quick changes that allow the actor to reappear almost instantly on the other side of the stage as the King. Only the occasionally awry hairpiece indicates the arduous transitions made backstage

Gianino accomplishes the character transformations in a style made famous by Charles Ludlam and his Ridiculous Theatre, comic methods for multiple role-playing popularized in his much-produced The Mystery of Irma Vep. A fake arm in the wardrobe, for instance, makes it seem as though William is still in there as Charles woos Behn by her desk. Gianino also offers a funny turn as a theatre-company-owning dowager, Lady Davenant, wearing a towering wig and a complicated, layered pink dress that can’t quite disguise his height or his manly mass. Gianino’s quite game to distinguish among his characters’ genders and sexual overtones, so that each one he plays maintains their own kind of dignity, even as the costume of the other peaks out from beneath the hem of his dress.

The 90-minute Or, is an evening of good fun written with such wit and charm and played with such good humor and good faith that the production is irresistible. As the lovers form themselves into a happy ménage-a-trois, the stage fills with good will and the attractions of relationships built on fellowship and mutual attraction. Despite what we know of the 1960s sexual revolution, in which men were much more liberated by revolving partners and sexual licentiousness than women, in Adams’s version, Behn is the fulcrum of the trio, and the women are full of agency, desire, choice, and affection, and as sexually and emotionally fulfilled as the men.

McClellan moves the production along with ease and verve, so that although the action plays out on one simple set, it seems as though the characters are always moving along, that something momentous is always happening. Her direction exemplifies the play’s overlapping time frames—she moves us across time and space imaginatively and effortlessly, keeping the energy and spirits high. One moment, we seem squarely in the 1660s; in the next, Janis Joplin’s electric wail covers a scene break, and we’re recalled to the 1960s. The music, in fact, gilds the production with nostalgia and pleasure.

Siff gives a lovely, specific and grounded performance as Behn. She winks at the audience, bringing us along with the play’s jokes and fun. She scribbles happily at her work, bent over her desk with as much pleasure as she derives from her suitors’ kisses. All three performers, directed by McClellan with perfect pace, pitch, and possession, look like they’re having a great deal of infectious fun. The three share their happy kisses, forming the gestus of love without that dread conjunction “or.”

In its happy time-confusing world of 1660/1960/now that Duffy Adams creates with such pleasure, Or, is a play that’s ultimately about both/and.

The Feminist Spectator

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Good Wife

Julianna Margulies and Archie Panjabi on The Good Wife

CBS’s new prime-time series showcases the considerable talents of Julianna Margulies, who stars as Alicia Florrick, wife of a Chicago District Attorney who’s been jailed on corruption charges for which he might or might not be framed, and for consorting with a prostitute, evidence of which is plastered all over the local news. Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), sits in jail trying to work the angles to which he had access on the outside, while his beleaguered and beautiful wife returns to work as a lawyer in a firm run by one of her old school mates, Will Garvin (Josh Charles), and his haughty and hard partner/nemesis, Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski).

In The Good Wife’s conceit, Alicia’s work as an attorney excels because of her unusual ability to empathize with people, and because of her sharp intelligence and steely resolve, all softened by a feminine, struggling-not-to-appear-hurt-and-damaged exterior. She also has an intuitive ability to think out of the box, often sensing that a case the other lawyers want to reject as unwinnable can actually be defended successfully. In that regard, The Good Wife trades on its star’s/character’s feminine wiles, but in other ways, the show’s writers let Alicia be much more than the superficially and stereotypically good wife/mother/woman, sometimes raising pertinent questions about just what constitutes “good.”

Margulies, who hasn’t performed in a prime-time series since her star-making turn on ER back in the day, is wonderful in the title role on The Good Wife. Alicia is a soft-spoken woman; most of Margulies’s acting is non-verbal. She reacts with a look, a subtle raise of her eyebrows or narrowing of her eyelids; emotion registers on her face almost imperceptibly. She’s a woman nearing middle-age, who’s been publicly humiliated by her husband’s malfeasance, and even more, by his dalliance with the prostitute, which is highly publicized in tandem with his conviction.

Instead of proceeding chronologically, the series establishes the barest bones of its back-story and thrusts Alicia into the present, where she’s learning how to be a single mother with two sullen and upset teenaged children, tended to by her husband’s mother, a tight-lipped upper-crust woman who disapproves of Alicia’s job and who’s loyal to her son at all costs. While Alicia debates what she thinks is true or not, her mother-in-law asserts her own version of her son’s story, and judges Alicia for her unwillingness to unquestioningly stand by her man.

Digital images of Peter and his prostitute seem easily available on the internet and television. Even Alicia’s kids easily find evidence and—confused and betrayed—watch video of their father enjoying his soft-porn dalliances. Alicia can’t bring herself to watch the whole scene, although she obsessively returns to various images of her husband in flagrante delicto, and then literally covers her eyes as the grainy images play. The series keeps her very public humiliation in the forefront of the story, so that mid-way through its first season, Alicia still hasn’t watched the whole scene.

Her husband’s betrayal, given his status on the Chicago political scene where the series plays out, thrusts Alicia into a kind of high visibility public sphere to which she’s clearly unaccustomed. Watching her navigate and find her own strength and dignity in the face of low-brow and prurient public mud-slinging is one of the show’s many pleasures. Alicia Florrick is a character to emulate—she’s moral but flexible, smart but sexy, creative but ethical. She gets the job done in the best way possible and her achievements, by each episode’s end, are celebrated and admired.

A basic pattern repeats week-to-week. Alicia’s firm lands a complicated case, in which underdog seems poised to be vanquished. Her superiors put Alicia in charge, often to test her, as the firm has only one spot open for a junior partner, and she’s required to compete with Cary (Matt Czuchry) a hungry, ambitious young white boy lawyer whose slick confidence contrasts nicely with Alicia’s ambivalent, tentative approach to her return to the rigors of lawyering. Because she’s not a conventional legal shark, Alicia connects with defendants more personally. They trust her and tell her things, or she understands them intuitively in ways that let her read the truth of their situations. Alicia’s high visibility in the press attracts clients to the firm; they request that she represent them because they know her own plight will make her effective defending their own.

Bemused but willing, Alicia steps up each week, and usually wins her cases through some unusual observation or creative choice about how to structure the defense. She often wins the grudging admiration of Baranski ‘s character, Diane, who clearly favors Alicia’s competition, Cary, for junior partner (although in a recent episode, she softens toward her after Alicia comes to her for advice and lets Diane prove that she’s ethical after all).

Will, on the other hand, tends a bit of a flame for Alicia, and remains staunchly supportive of her return to legal practice. The growing sexual tension between them gives the series the de rigueur romantic possibility in which to ground its weekly stories of the little guy vanquishing corporate wrong-doings or government greed. But to its writers’ credit, The Good Wife isn’t rushing Will and Alicia into an affair, but lets them circle one another cautiously, advancing and retreating multiple times in each episode.

In many ways, Alicia finds herself in a world not of her own making; it’s not clear she would be working if her husband weren’t in jail. But her very reluctance to fully embrace the world in which she’s now excelling makes her an appealing character. She’s exactly not one of those bracing, aggressive female assistant district attorneys who’ve cycled through each of the Law and Order series. She’s a woman with an unraveling, precarious domestic life; a now-cautious relationship with her incarcerated husband; a mother-in-law on whom she’s forced to depend, even though the two women don’t like one another very much; and two teenage children whose reactions to their father’s betrayal she also needs to supervise and manage.

Alicia’s reluctant success illustrates the pull of the professional for upper-middle-class women who’ve for one reason or another opted to stay home (and had the financial means to do so). I’m hoping that over the course of the series, The Good Wife won’t trade in tired tropes about women “having it all,” but will instead use its main character’s complexity to illustrate the contradictions and conflicts in how American society—even in the second decade of the 21st century—judges women who are wives, mothers, and professionals making their way in the world.

Instead of fashioning the character as a heroine who juggles her conflicting tasks and situations with obvious élan, Alicia’s flaws and contradictions and tentative choices make her much more interesting. She has deeply ambivalent feelings about her charismatic husband, whom she visits in his minimum security prison and with whom she gradually rebuilds a very tenuous kind of trust. Peter offers her information from his various contacts that can be helpful to her cases; he seems to be the hub of a very fast wheel with multiple overlapping spokes. He’s eager to make amends for his bad behavior, but Alicia resists the information he tries to feed her, at the same time gradually understanding the depth of complex political systems of favors and pay-backs in which he’s made his career, and in which she now finds herself embroiled.

Ironically, from his rather cushy incarceration, Peter becomes Alicia’s mentor. In spite of her resentment and rage at his betrayal, she knows he can teach her things about how to succeed with the cases she builds. On the other hand, because of his notoriety, she can’t enter a courtroom anonymously; every judge she faces and every prosecuting attorney she battles knows her history. They all look at her through their own distaste for her husband, their desire for vengeance, or their prurient interest in how she’s holding up under such public humiliation. That Alicia insists she be treated as her own person, and unfailingly rejects everyone’s presumptions, is part of the show’s feminist appeal.

The writers temper Alicia’s strength and determination with an appealing fragility that she tries to hide, knowing that it won’t get her far in her law firm’s shark-pool. Yet that very humanity makes her effective as a litigator. She treats her clients like real people, and invariably learns information that her more hard-boiled colleagues miss.

Her partner in each escapade is Kalinda (the terrific Archie Panjabi), the private detective on retainer to the firm who is wry and skeptical and knows just how to extract useful information. Kalinda provides a counterpart to Alicia’s more insistently straightforward, ethical attorney. Their tentative friendship, which develops over the first season into a fierce loyalty, lets The Good Wife explore a relationship between female colleagues often foreclosed by more conventional law and order series.

Who wouldn’t have wanted to see Alex, the DA, and Olivia Benson, the detective, on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit spend more face time (especially after Stephanie March’s electric exit from the show several seasons ago, in a staged murder that found Benson obviously caring for and mourning the colleague she believed dead)? Who wouldn’t have wanted to see the revolving door of female actors/characters who’ve played Sam Waterson’s side-kick on the original Law and Order actually have female friends and colleagues, instead of the witchy female judges that more often berated them for perceived ineptitude and left them hanging in a world of unsympathetic men?

What a surprise it was when Serena Southerlyn (Elizabeth Rohm), dismissed from her job (and Rohm from her recurring role), worried that she had been discriminated against because she was a lesbian. Her private life hadn’t once been written into her role.

As a result, seeing Alicia and Kalinda develop a mutually beneficial professional relationship that’s enhanced by their grudging personal respect sets a new benchmark for female friendships on television dramas. Baranski’s Diane, on the other hand, has for most of the first season served as the resident ball-breaking shrew, in contrast to whom Josh Charles’s Will seems positively feminine and empathetic. That Will and Alicia are old school chums threatens Diane, whose cutthroat ethos doesn’t trust that Will can keep his feelings for Alicia disentangled from the firm’s high-stakes business.

On the other hand, Cary, the young white male tiger who the partners have established as Alicia’s man to beat for a permanent spot in the firm, has grown over the first season from a single-minded competitor to a more sympathetic colleague who can’t help but admire Alicia’s grit. To the writers’ credit, Cary and Alicia’s initial competition has resolved into a partnership in which they, too, help one another more often than not. That the unlikely pair has developed a grudging respect keeps The Good Wife from relying on gender- and age-based stereotypes about effective (at least on tv) lawyering.

Diane got her own moment of more complex character-based drama on an episode toward the end of the first season, which guest starred Kate Burton as a female judge who’s made her own political compromises to maintain her power and position. When Burton’s character and her minions approach Diane about running for a judgeship, Baranski plays Diane as flattered and pleased, taken in by the opprobrium of a woman senior to herself.

But in a parallel plot, Alicia uncovers evidence of corruption in another judge, who happens to be Will’s friend, and takes her quandary to Diane. When Diane shows her more ethical side, and refuses to take Alicia off the case as Burton’s character requests, Diane is shown the door by the local political machine that wanted to place her on the bench. The episode gave Baranski a chance to show Diane with more depth and thoughtfulness than usual, since she’s more often than not posing in power suits that make her look like a scowling dominatrix.

Margulies’s long-suffering affect, honed to perfection all those years on ER, is shaded here with more emotional nuance, which makes the character and Margulies’s acting much more interesting. Alicia, unlike Nurse Carol, has an ever-strengthening back bone. The more independent she’s forced to be, the stronger she becomes. Although the complexities of her single-motherhood are mitigated by her very upper-class status and her mother-in-law’s willingness to help (however much friction that causes Alicia and her children), she’s still a middle-aged (albeit gorgeous) woman finding her way in a professional world, and refusing to give up her humanity to succeed.

The Good Wife is one of the year’s most successful new series, nominated for several Golden Globe Awards and picked up for another season. If other networks develop clones, perhaps more roles will be written for middle-aged women who aren’t just mothers or mistresses, but who are professionals with complex emotional back-stories and complicated choices that make them unpredictable and compelling (see, for only one example, Edie Falco’s title character on Nurse Jackie). Here’s hoping.

The Feminist Spectator