I went with a couple of friends to 7 Stages Friday night to see their production of Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. Directed by Rachel Parish, it’s a farce that struck me as kind of like a cross between Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis and Věra Chytilová’s Daisies. Performed by six actors, it consists of a series of absurdist sketches that range from silly and accessible to anyone to chaotic and a bit challenging.
The first few scenes were dialogues that explored the topics of language, marriage, and our basic labor structure. In the first, a hetero couple negotiates the language of eroticism, showing how there is built in male dominance and aggression by inverting it so that the woman is the aggressor. In the second, a hetero couple grapple with the historic meaning of marriage. In the third, an employee wonders why she has to work on Mondays as an employer tries to make the workplace seem like fun, as though it makes up for taking so much of the lives of employees.
What struck me about these first scenes, aside from the fact that they were hilarious, was that they really were a dialog. Nobody was accusing anyone else of anything in particular so much as they were drawing attention to dominance structures that are so ingrained in our culture that many people don’t think to question them. None of the scenes even really said that these structures were bad, just that they may not be for everyone and we should look at them more closely.
The next scene was a little more poignant. It began silly, like the rest, with two employees of a grocery store questioning a customer who had been exposing herself in the store. When the customer began her response, though, it began to become more serious and more poignant as she explained that if she makes herself permanently available for and desirous of sex then there can be no such thing as unwanted sexual attention or rape. Sadly, given the statistics, a lot of the audience members could relate first hand to that feeling of being compelled to hyper-sexuality to reclaim a sense of control over their bodies after sexual victimization. I did.
Aside from being poignant, the shift from silly to serious in that scene had an impressive naturalness to it. It’s how I wish the work had continued, but instead it began a descent into something more chaotic. The next scene featured a mother taking her child to meet her own mother who had walked away from her. It didn’t really go anywhere and only barely raised the question of a person’s responsibility to their family and the family’s impact on the individual members. I found it obnoxious that a kind of rural accent was used for the cold, disinterested matriarch, that perpetuated the kind of false stereotypes of people who don’t speak with the politically dominant culture’s accent that alienates them from the urbane “elites” and drives them to think that electing someone like Trump is a good idea. It ended with two members cutting their tongues off in what seemed like a statement regarding being pushed into silencing oneself, kind of like the activist in John Irving’s The World According to Garp. It felt a little out of nowhere and out of place for this particular scene, almost like a cop out because there was really no good way to end it.
From here there was a massive bout of chaos, with all of the actors on stage talking animatedly about this and that, usually talking over each other, often not saying anything meaningful at all. Perhaps this was an appropriate symbol of the way that conversations about women’s gender issues can feel sometimes like everyone is just blurting out what they think at one time without having any meaningful exchanges of ideas and feelings in a way that gets us nowhere and turns moderates off of the whole discussion. To some extent, the descent into chaos felt appropriate to make the audience realize that this isn’t just funny and it’s not just a few issues. I feel that it worked better for having this monologue at the end about having a thought not being enough and the world kind of sucking. But I think that monologue could have been something a little more coherent and direct: a challenge to the audience to understand how desperate the situation can really be for women. Also, humor is powerful: it is often used to make sexism and bigotry more palatable and it can just as well make it more comfortable to talk about difficult issues to combat these things. However, it can also make it easy to continue to treat those difficult issues lightly if you don’t resolve the humor into something else. The chaotic scene, then, could be scene as shocking the audience out of an attitude of lightness and into a frame of mind where they feel that they really need to think about what they’ve seen.
The play concludes with a short bit with the women coming together to overthrow the wage-labor system and men, playing off the more extreme accusations that reactionaries throw at feminism. It wasn’t a bad ending but, with the chaos of the previous act, it wasn’t as strong as I felt like it could have been and it has been done before.
I mentioned earlier that I would rather have had the play continue to shift from silliness to a darker and more dramatic form. I feel that more could have been said more explicitly had the comedy been used to set up real, painful stories of why so many feel the need for feminism at all. I really wish that Birch had continued to lure the audience from comedy into drama rather than taking the turn toward the chaotic. More scenes like the one in the grocery store, slowly becoming less silly and more serious, could have been a lot more powerful and have reached a larger portion of the audience. The family dinner scene could have been tightened up and more focused and followed by scenes like maybe a couples therapy session or two people talking about getting laid with a Nobokov-esque unreliable narrator take where it becomes clearer and clearer that they’re talking about rape as it progresses. I think that the ending would have been stronger with a monologue bringing all of the subjects together, perhaps delivered almost like a stand-up routine that ends with the speaker’s laughter turning to desperate tears and perhaps a violent suicide in front of the audience. Something like this would shock the audience out of the lightness and humor that the subject matter is treated in the rest of the play and I think that it would really compel more conversation about the subject matter rather than the structure of the play itself. Still, despite my own preferences, this was a good play and it certainly did provoke discussion among the people with whom I attended. Even if the ending became a bit challenging, I think that most people who enjoy edgy theater would at least find it interesting enough to be worth seeing.