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As was patently obvious in Sheila Callaghan’s play “Everything You Touch,” which had its world premiere at The Theatre at Boston Court, one huge focus in Callaghan’s writing is the body image messages American women get and perpetuate, and the damage that does. Now, in her new work, “Women Laughing Alone With Salad,” receiving its west coast premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, she uses absurdism to emphasize this theme, and just perhaps give the first hints of societal shift.
For Callaghan, and most certainly for her characters, salad is a metaphor for all of the denials women hand themselves when they obsess over staying youthful, or thin, or “fit” in the unhealthy ways some elements of society seem to demand. When one character sits between two totally normal-looking others at a lunch counter, sure it will show her to advantage because one neighbor is more full figured, and the other is comparatively older, then brags about being full because she ate a grape, the absurdity comes front and center.
Yet “Women Laughing…” also explores what these female obsessions do to the men they encounter. Why would a man respect a woman who is willing to destroy her natural self to shave off a few years, or who cannot enjoy a celebration without bending over a toilet by the end? What does this do to skew his view of women in general? How can such a man face a more enlightened female with any sense of understanding?
The extremely versatile four-person cast creates an extraordinary ensemble, allowing for the quick-change energy which powers this episodic piece. Each plays a host of small, nameless parts, which create the atmosphere for the main characters who waft in and out of the somewhat convoluted storyline.
Lisa Barnes makes fascinating work of Sandy, the successful mother of Guy (David Clayton Rogers), whose wholehearted beauty regimen shifts from anti-aging creams and potions to totally ridiculous measures, all the while leaning upon (perhaps because if his celibacy) a Catholic Monsignor in her building.
Nora Kirkpatrick plays Tori, Guy’s girlfriend, a young woman with an eating disorder, trained to bend her desires to a man’s wishes. In expressing Tori’s phobia about weight, Kirkpatrick offers a straightforward quality to her willingness to point out the flaws in other female bodies, lending to an understanding that she simply doesn’t realize how her own disease colors her world.
Dinora Z. Walcott is Meredith, a lovely woman with a less bony body – a body Guy finds attractive for its comparative fullness, even as he – trained as he has been – cannot see past her physique to anything else. Walcott makes this woman more comfortable in her own skin, even as she yearns for a time when her body type would have been more the norm.
Rogers, as the show’s sole, rather ordinary male, provides a sense of the damage done to a man raised by a woman obsessed with her looks, who sees all other women in terms of their vulnerability and sexual attractiveness. He is left with no clue to who women are or what they can do other than that constant sense of inadequacy he sees displayed by those closest to him, and with an exaggerated sense of his own power, based on nothing more than his maleness.
This plays out spectacularly in a second half devoted to putting this entire scenario in a blender. Indeed, it is in reversing everything that the ridiculous superficiality of society becomes most evident. Interestingly, it is also – as written – the least absurdist portion of the piece. Here staging makes for the statements instead.
Director Neel Keller coordinates and choreographs the constant shifts of scene and character to create a pacing and an interconnectedness that ties the larger story and the short vignettes together into a single message. The second half’s character shifts are handled with a startling authenticity which both increases the humor and emphasizes the point.
Keith Mitchell’s moving panels and Keith Skretch’s at once mysterious and yet impactful projections also assist in the flow and progression of the play in subtly important ways. It’s stark, particularly in the first half, but it works. However, starkness has its price: the constant use of the same images over and over, and the rushing and episodic nature of the first half, creates its own problems. This, particularly when tied to the less fevered second half, underscores the somewhat “lecture-y” nature of the proceedings.
On comparison, the messages made in “Anything You Touch” may have been somewhat easier to unravel, though anyone who appreciates the absurd cannot help but approve the way “Women Laughing…” takes the bitter concepts of women’s self image in modern America and runs it out to its extremes. Yet, extreme characters are harder to connect to emotionally – a side effect of absurdism which may temper an audience’s response.
Do be aware that the nature of this play concentrates on sexuality and on sex, though there is no actual nudity. If this bothers you, this is not the play for you.
What: “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” When: Through April 3, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City How Much: $25 – $55 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
Case in point would be “Everything You Touch” by Sheila Callaghan, a coproduction with the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater which was nurtured into being by the Boston Court, and is receiving its world premiere run there. And who better to direct something steeped in the above-mentioned subtleties than co-Artistic Director Jessica Kubzansky. The results have proved so fascinating the run of the play has been extended until at least May 18.
“Everything You Touch” is grounded in the world of fashion. It centers on parallel plots. One is set in the 70s, following a self absorbed fashion designer’s gradual shift from outlandish and groundbreaking to popular and trendy – and the women who inspired the two versions of himself. The other, seated in the now, seems a polar opposite: a dumpy and disheveled young computer whiz whose wrestles with the demons of her own self-loathing escalate as she must travel from New York to Little Rock and her dying, judgmental mother.
At least, that’s where it all begins. From there the two stories weave in and around each other, creating some questions, answering others, blurring lines in time and space.
To add to the surreal, the set dressing and props consist rather heavily of live fashion models. They stride in, angle themselves, and become computer screens, telephones, gum dispensers, and all matter of props. What isn’t made of humans – a chair is the most startling example – is made of mannequin parts. In short, fashion consumes the set just as it powers the plot.
If this sounds convoluted, it’s not. Both Kubzansky’s direction and a spirited, richly expressive cast easily pull the audience into the puzzle.
Tyler Pierce is Victor, a womanizing fashion designer with a struggling boutique and a reputation for both callousness and an edgy, out-there creativity. Kate Maher gives her own sharpness to the former model who has become Victor’s artistic muse and occasional sexual partner. Amy French is the comparatively cornfed prize winner whose visit and discourse on comfiness strikes a surprising bell with Victor, initiating a sea change in all his relationships.
Kirsten Vangsness is Jess, the frumpy computer geek used to one-night stands and a life behind a computer screen. Her somewhat sarcastic sense of self leads her to meaningless relationships, all the while ignoring her work partner, Lewis (Arthur Keng), whose devotion she cannot see. Now she hears her mother is dying, and scoops up a guy – essentially an elongated pick-up – to go with her on the journey. Or does she?
The achingly white set by Francois-Pierre Couture, ingeniously crafted to allow for quick changes and a focus on the colorful clothing, Jenny Foldenauer’s startling, varied and very telling costumes, Adam Flemming’s evocative projections, John Zalewski’s original music, and those weird and wonderful props by John Burton all combine to guide the audience through the characters’ interior monologues and human conflicts. In the end, what appears just to be a conversation on self-image has much more to say about the human spirit and the nature of both success and art.
“Everything You Touch” delivers that remarkable combination of satisfaction and conversation starter that makes for one kind of excellent theater. And since shows that make you think are The Theatre at Boston Court’s bread and butter, it is no surprise that the show is being held over. The special efforts it took to make this world premiere happen certainly prove to be worth it.
What: “Everything You Touch” When: Through May 18, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, $29 senior/student Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.com