Charlotte Ford’s “Bang” at Philadelphia Live Arts
Charlotte Ford’s Bang is a subversive, feminist ‘sex show’ performed by a trio of brainy lady actors/performance artists/clowns. Sound more like an undergraduate thesis project than a fun night out? Please note that Bang is also a hilariously ribald comedic event, glorying in boobs/butts/beer and audience participation. Now, that sounds like a lot of fun, right? Audiences at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival agreed, and several days after its sell-out run concluded, several performances had to be added to meet demand this past weekend.
The show kicks off with a, forgive me, bang, when three unsuspecting women are startled to find themselves with us, the audience–they appear to have been suddenly dropped from their lives into the red-curtain-ringed theater. Spying a red Sex Show sign, which ominously unfolds from above, the trio come to the conclusion that they are expected to…perform for us? (Cue horrified freakout!) The ladies– three distinct types in audacious wigs: nerdy nervous Barb (Sarah Sanford), a fan of dowdy corduroy skirts and contra dancing; clunky cougar Gayle (Lee Etzold), in the highest-waist jeans imaginable; new-age sprite Cheyenne–“let me talk to you from my womb” (Bang‘s writer Ford) –are initially shocked, but grow increasingly confident as they seem to come to the unspoken agreement that this is a sex show, yes–but for them more than their audience. As in, it is about what they desire, what turns them on. And since this realization has been come to by zany, unembarrassed performance artists who fly their clown-flag high, what turns them on includes: cheese balls, small home appliances, a talented La-Z-Boy recliner, dorky dances, and, of course, men removing ladders from the stage.
This zesty series of vignettes, songs, monologues, and one clever film–all elegantly realized by director Emanuelle Delpech, who like several of the trio has a history as part of Philadelphia’s physical-theater masters, Pig Iron–combined into a bubbly celebration of female energy and real female bodies. Sidebar: There’s plenty of nudity, featured in the most relaxed, silly, joyful manner you could imagine, delightful and rather resolutely unsexy. Because, to reiterate, it wasn’t about them being sexy for us, as Ford states in press materials for the show, “I also wanted to make a theater piece about what women desire as opposed to women being desirable.”
The women have plenty of fun in flipping the traditional ‘male gaze‘ back on the boys. Several male audience members were willing participants in the performers’ games; a large college group was part the sold-out house the evening I attended, and as you can imagine when one of their lot ended up onstage, hoots and hollers abounded. “Ryan is eighteen,” Ford as the droll hippie fairy ‘Cheyenne’ announced with a sly smile. “Isn’t that convenient for everyone?” We watched Ryan turn from cocky collegiate ‘bro’ to nervous maybe-lover, as Cheyenne revealed a small stuffed animal peeking through the front of her underpants. She informed Ryan, “my lioness would enjoy being stroked,” as the crowd roared.
Toward the end of the evening, we are treated to a short film which finds Cheyenne whimsically scampering around Philadelphia one afternoon, totally naked but for her character’s long flowing wig, startling a jogger on a bridge, bringing men to frozen-smile-fear in a small café, skipping down alleys, and generally just being, well, a clown who happens to be romping through Philly naked (she buys an iced coffee from a seemingly delighted barista, and as soon as she makes it to the street promptly offers it to a dog).
All three then return to the stage in outrageous costumes for a medley that was celebratory and sublime. The audience as a whole seemed to be one big gauzy grin, gabbling with strangers to share their post-show glee.
Separate from this review, I would be remiss not to discuss the frequent comparisons I’ve heard between Bang and Untitled Feminist Show, Young Jean Lee’s wordless exploration of a female utopia. UFS was seen in NY last winter as part of PS122’s COIL Festival and has been on a world tour, with a current stop at Philly Live Arts. Indeed the shows do exist on a continuum, and Philly Live Arts is smartly holding a panel on Body Politics, with Lee, Ford, and John Collins of ERS- which is presenting their Arguendo piece on the Supreme Court’s ruling on stripping vs nudity in art- certain to be a lively and interesting conversation.
I’ve been startled by the specious, and I believe sexist, nature of the comparison. From presenters, agents, and others who aid and abet this scene – only one of whom had actually seen Bang – I’ve been hearing something to the effect of, “but didn’t Young Jean Lee already do this?” UFS is a joyful experience to be sure – personally I watched it twice last winter and would happily do so again – and so is Ford’s in a different way, with its own vocabulary.
So, why do these arbiters feel there can be room for only one show dealing with this theme? I’ve certainly seen and enjoyed more than one major performance in recent years centering on, for instance, the male queer body. I get a sense that the folks I’ve talked to- male and female movers and shakers, in half a dozen chats over the last couple of weeks – that, like Highlander, there can be only one. As in, only one show created by a female artist that celebrates the woman’s body and sexuality in a comedic and non-traditional way, that’s it, for all time. In other words, when I’m raving about Ford’s Bang, they are replying, “but how many more comedic female empowerment performance pieces do we need”?
My response is: how much more can be made, and when can I see them? Like many female humans, I’m acutely aware of the constant, pervasive onslaught of the male-based view of women’s bodies, and how men wish women to express desire- dished out to us incessantly, from television, movies, photoshopped magazine covers, omnipresent porn and its frequently warped presentation of female sexuality, to all the sad women of the large and small screen, with their faces tightly stretched.
In comparison to all this – the daily sensorial onslaught via all forms of media, in which normal-looking women rarely make an appearance – it is absolutely THRILLING to watch a performance event featuring three normal, real women enjoying their own particular, specific naked bodies. I had a similar feeling of euphoria when viewing UFS, and never for a moment when watching Bang did I think, “oh enough of this, someone else has covered this already!”
Rather, I found myself thinking – how inspiring that two works on this subject have been born within close proximity- and will more female artists jump in to what I hope will be an ever widening, deepening pool? Is there perhaps a whole new genre being created, a kind of contemporary feminist performance that is comedic, playful and packing sold-out houses with mainstream audiences? i.e. folks who would never use the phrase ‘feminist performance art’ to describe the show they’ve just happily seen, but whose minds are opened by what they witnessed therein?