Evelyn at The Bushwick Starr

Friday night took us out to The Bushwick Starr for Nellie Tinder‘s new project Evelyn, written and directed by Julia May Jonas. This is Jonas’ most ambitious and fully-developed project to date and it marks a real turning point, I think.

On the most straightforward level, Evelyn is the story of a group of women in a mental institution/recovery facility who are trying to rebuild themselves after a variety of traumas and breakdowns. In that sense it brings to mind a number of other works in a similar vein like Girl, Interrupted or, at times, Todd Haynes’ Safe, which has been described as “a horror movie of the soul.” By the show’s conclusion it has morphed into something more akin to Euripides’ The Bacchae. (I thought I was all clever and original on that, until I saw that Jacob Gallagher-Ross draws the same parallel in his review over at The Village Voice. Anyway, if both of us agree, then there’s probably something to it.)

The show begins with Holly (Kate Schroeder) and Nicky (Lisa Clair) sitting downstage and complaining about fellow resident Tiffany (Jocelyn Kuritsky was cast, on Friday she was replaced due to injury by Julia May Jonas). Becky (Kate Benson) and Elisa (Zoe Geltman) are stage left, walking stiffly upstage and down. From the outset the dialogue is stylized and funny, but definitely rings true to the situation. Holly says:

“She’s got to change. We can’t be expected to lead her to safe harbor when she just wants to drown. We have to take care of ourselves. We’re here for us, not her! No matter how leaderly we become, we have to remember we’re here for us.”

In just a few lines Jonas paints the scene at the institution quite clearly – the insecurities and neuroses, the internecine warfare and petty squabbles of unbalanced people in close confinement, the way minutia are amplified under the microscope of psychology. Later we will learn that they have breakout sessions after every meal to discuss how they feel and group sessions every evening before bed. Every thought, every feeling, every interaction is surgically parsed and evaluated, in search of the root of their dysfunction, in a desperate quest for a cure to make them whole and return them to normalcy. Holly is the ambiguously unstable, possibly slutty one. Nicky is the victim of sexual abuse from her uncle, Becky is the oldest, the school principal and mother who just cracked under the pressure, Elisa the misfit artsy teenager who writes dark Broadway musicals about Tesla and the Ancient Egyptians, Tiffany is the “bad” one – the antisocial one who rejects therapy, who will probably be a lifer. Later we meet Brooke (Nikki Calonge) who can only speak in howls and murmurs, though the audience privy to her thoughts by way of inner monologue.

Watching over all of them is the spectral Gertie (Richard Saudek, in drag) who is the enforcer and observer, the minion of Dr. Katie Doctors (Lucy Kaminsky) – the benevolent but fearsome head of the institution. She insists that the patients refer to her as Katie, and her nurturing, caring surface just barely hints at the menace beneath. She is no Nurse Ratched, but her compassion and placidity suggest the possibility that the whole enterprise is an exercise in futility and ineffectuality, she is dangerous because she is benign.

Into this tinderbox enters Evelyn Henries (Hannah Heller) who, for unknown reasons, has been sent to the institution to recover her mental health. From the beginning, when Henries enters in mini-skirt and heels, unable to sit down on the floor to join in group therapy, circling the ladies like a lioness circling prey, we know this won’t end well. Evelyn will not break down, she will not be common like everyone else, she will not join in and she will not “recover”. The only question is what she will do and who she will destroy to get what she wants.

What happens from there is a fascinating study in manipulation. I’m trying to think of another female character that is so spectacularly amoral and chameleonic. Evelyn has a talent for honing in on other’s weaknesses and desires, seducing them with kindness and promises while exploiting them for her own ends. She brings a halo of glamour and shines it on the mortals around her, the women compete for her affections which she doles out, discreetly, to each. Even Katie falls under Evelyn’s spell and ends up kissing her passionately at the conclusion of one of their therapy sessions.

Of course this is where things go horribly, horribly wrong, as the destruction that Evelyn has sown boils over. The Woods – a mysterious area away from The Castle where the women live – has been a site for Tiffany’s magickal ceremonies and incantations. She shared this with Evelyn and now Evelyn intends to lead all the women into the woods to be destroyed, or destroy each other. But the destructive energy she has unleashed turns on her instead and she is destroyed in a frenzied, unspeakable bacchanal.

So okay, that’s the plot, basically. It really spurred a lot of thought about many things – but mostly about the feminine voice, presentational aesthetic and the prejudices against that voice in a male-dominated culture.

First I think of the set-up as a whole. If a man wrote a piece about a mental health institution (say, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) the group dynamic would merely be the backdrop for the arc of the heroic lead, which culminates in escape, death or destruction. In Evelyn, the group dynamic is the focus of the plot. I know it sounds stereotypical, but I think of Fefu And Her Friends and this sort of shift into exploring multiple interactions and group dynamics, how they accumulate to create an outcome. The arc is not predicated entirely on the actions of one individual, but a collection of actions and a confluence of circumstances. This seems like part of the “feminine gaze” if you will.

I also wonder if a man had written such an evil character as Evelyn Henries, would it have been dismissed as unacceptable sexism? Jonas writes very deftly and does such a good job of delineating the world of the institution and the individuality of each character, that Evelyn seems to draw on a uniquely feminine, Mean Girls-type sensibility and archetype. This show is universal, but it is also about women, about how they interact in confinement and out of sight of society. In that way it references years and years of misogynist psychotherapy, from diagnoses of hysteria to penis envy.

So then I think about aesthetics. The show opens – and is threaded throughout – by songs and musical interludes performed by the actors. Lucy Kaminsky plays flute, one of the characters plays violin, there are scenes of the women drawing, doing art projects, knitting. The style of the music is home-made and simple, the women’s voices are on-tune but somewhat weak. They are not Broadway Belters, they are real girls. These things make me think of Karinne Keithley’s Montgomery Park, her instinct for framing the domestic, framing the things that women do – or are conventionally attributed with doing – as artful, generative acts that resist glorification. Symbolically – if not actually – girls in high school play flute, take art, knit, they grown into women who either hold onto these things or reject them, but these things retain resonance.

Along those lines, Jonas’ poetic language and phrasing call to mind Keithley, but also, obliquely, Tina Satter. Jonas, from time to time, embraces the kind of slang-y uptalk that one hears in Satter’s writing, but while Satter and Half Straddle embrace an aesthetic of intentional informality suggesting amateurishness, Jonas employs a more formal and disciplined approach. The lines are delivered more tautly, the actors are more actor-ly, the staging is, generally, more precise and more formal. In fact, the only times that Evelyn seems to lose momentum are some of the movement sequences that seem a little undisciplined and wobbly. My experience of the work was that some of the movement-based interludes and the climactic closing sequence seemed a bit drawn out and overtly literal. I think I understand, kind of, what Jonas was going for, but I don’t think she quite achieved it.

Despite a few weak spots, Evelyn is a really compelling, entertaining and insightful show that keeps you engaged and thinking throughout. The actors are uniformly excellent and the production elements – set, lights, sound – are not only aesthetically successful but professionally executed. There were several moments when I sat there and thought – why couldn’t this be at The Atlantic or Second Stage or Playwrights? And I thought of Claudia LaRocco’s essay on Theresa Rebeck and gender stereotypes on Broadway and realized that, sadly, this kind of work is still, unbelievably, only to be seen downtown (or in Brooklyn as the case may be).

In writing this article it really hit home that we have a wonderful variety of talented women writers working in “downtown” theater at the moment. Many of them are, in their own way, exploring language, aesthetics and ideas that are related but very different. They are articulating a kind of post-post-post feminism that embraces history while struggling to articulate a vision of the future. It is not about reaction to male-dominated society, nor, like Untitled Feminist Show, predicated on imagining some kind of feminine Utopia, but rather it is about integration and agency. It is about voice – precisely what UFS avoided – and about self-definition.

Anyway – I’ve rambled enough. Go see Evelyn!
It is playing at The Bushwick Starr until March 10th, 2012.

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