Fusebox Festival blogger Katherine Catmull files this report from Austin, TX.
No one is as anxiously fascistic about gender roles as a four-year old princess or a five-year-old soldier. It’s funny to us, but for pre-schoolers, the rules are grim and real. My youngest brother, in panicky tears, refused to eat grilled cheese sandwiches because “I’m not a gril! I’m a boy!”
Part of the excellence of Guest By Courtesy—performed in the (manly!) lobby of the Scottish Rite Theatre as part of the Fusebox Festival this week—is to expose gender roles as a form of play, unacknowledged but deadly serious. The piece —devised collaboratively by Hannah Kenah and Jenny Larson and written by Kenah— takes on gender and class with wit, precise physicality, and masterful tonal control. It’s a clown play gone political that somehow also keeps one delicate toe in the genuine heartbreak of it all.
Jenny is the anxious, rigid poor cousin, clinging with childish insistence to proper form as her only way out of genteel poverty. Hannah is the privileged cousin: married, bored, and maddening.
When Hannah falls asleep during her husband’s monologue, Jenny anxiously assembles her into the attentive posture a listening wife should have. But when the two break into a physical fight, what begins as girly, cats’-paw slapping degenerates sublimely into serious roughhousing, and these constrained women take wild and goofy joy in physical play.
The men, splendidly represented by Jason Hays, are trapped in their own rigid roles. When Jenny exposes Hannah’s infidelity to her husband, the women discuss his proper response: “Well? What should he do?” “Yes. What should he?” “He should hit you!” “Yes! He should!” “A man would!”
Roger’s sulky response: “I don’t want to be a man.” To which the women reply:
- So what?
- You are a man.
- You can’t help it.
Stylistically, the piece makes fascinating use of “durations” —Kenah’s and Larson’s shorthand (borrowed from SITI Company director Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints methodology) for moments in the piece when time stretches to a near-snapping point.
An example: in the opening tableau, the two women are seated on a couch. In painstakingly sloooowwww and hilarious counterpoint, Hannah slumps and slides into a messy heap, while Jenny rises higher and higher to perch on the back of the couch. The increasing contrast between them is not just directional and energetic, but also comedy vs. anxiety. If they were musical phrases, Hannah would be a trombone’s wah-wah-waahhhhh, and Jenny a tense, unresolved violin chord.
(Austin composer Graham Reynolds provides actual live music to underscore and punctuate these moments.)
Late in the piece, left alone, Hannah recapitulates her initial slow slump. But this time, the same physical shape contains genuine despair, and that shift has unexpected power.
Guest By Courtesy is arch, double- and triple-distanced from its topics, and often hysterically funny, but it remains grounded and often moving. At this international festival, homegrown Guest by Courtesy is doing Austin more than proud.