On Femme Pathos, with a Joseph Campbell analogy

After watching Femme Pathos, which was presented as a part of the Exponential Festival, I was inclined to believe that it should be called Joseph Campbell’s Fruit Salad. That’s a joke, but I did think it – and felt it was illustrative enough of the performance as a whole that I should include it here. Naturally, as one would expect from a theater maker like Claire Moodey, there is plenty of subversion of the Campbell model of storytelling, nearly all of it fruitful and affecting.

The most remarkable part of Femme Pathos is how Moodey’s character (the play is based on Moodey’s real-life relationship with her mother) comes to grip with a loss of control both in content (the acceptance of her mother’s problematic experiences) and form (Moodey’s character actually loses control of the performance as time goes on). The opening moment, when Moodey calls to the booth and receives a “yes?” from the board op in return is obviously canned. Did the board op really not know that Moodey would be asking for her mother’s voicemail to be played? Of course not. Moodey and crew have choreographed this moment and included an indication of spontaneity while maintaining a firm grip on what happens in the performance. Moodey then narrates her mother’s early life by showing transparencies of old photos on an overhead projector. She puts little cutouts on the photos – a birthday party hat for a dog, a mortar board for her recently MFA’ed mother – to indicate events extraneous to the contents of the photos. She is in complete control of the method by which her mother’s story is told.

Then, with the story of an ill-fated chicken with a prolapsed cloaca, the performance begins to slip from her control. In nearly the same tone with which she told the story of her mother’s youth and early adulthood, Moodey recounts discovering that her favorite chicken’s digestive tract was so backed up with undigested food that the food was nearly coming out of her eyes (more on undigested food later). Moodey tries to save the bird by soaking it in Epsom salts and massaging it, but the inevitability of its death leads to the practicality of it being made into chicken soup. This is a first, but foreboding, hiccup in the course of Moodey’s absolute control of the narrative.

Then all hell breaks loose. Enter the Three Lords, one of Form, one of Speech, and one of Mind. This is also our first glimpse of the Hungry Ghost, who wanders around clad in a grotesque costume that resembles a naked, tumorous Elizabethan noble whose collar has become soiled and crooked. Each is clad in a brightly colored fruit helmet: orange, pineapple, and kiwi respectively. That control Moodey exhibited erodes as the three fruit-headed figures take over, administering batteries of leading questions about depression to the Hungry Ghost. The Lords give the Ghost generic advice on how to be happy, all of it gendered and sexist, recommending that she focus on caregiving and watch her figure. Immediately after this, Moodey and the Lords enjoy platefuls of pancakes while the Hungry Ghost writhes on the ground grunting and moaning in digestive agony. The last thing the Hungry Ghost needs is advice to eat less. She has completely lost her ability to digest, a la the poor chicken, and the Lords perform an operation to remove her large intestine. This scene was a real highlight and magically designed with the Lords tearing open the tumor laden costume of the Hungry Ghost and removing the fringed and frilly ropes of entrails.

The Hungry Ghost, now transformed into Mary, Moodey’s mother, is freed from the dietary problems that had made it so she had not taken, as she says, “a good shit” in six years. Even the bodies of our characters are out of control until a grotesque and mutilating surgery.

At this point, it becomes clear: what is the action of the play but the slow realization of one’s limited control in life? Both characters start in control of their situations before making chaotic descents into the underworld only to come out of the other side stronger and at peace with the courses of their lives. The Hungry Ghost/Mary has a life dominated by men, digestive ailments, and depression. By the end, the majority of her large intestine now removed, her life partner, a woman she met in high school, and an acute ability to articulate her undying love as a mother and a friend for Moodey, Mary has taken control of the parts of her life that she can. This is directly inverse Moodey’s trajectory through the piece. For Moodey, we are witness to a reckoning with an absolute loss of control. Grappling with her mother’s history proves to be more difficult as it goes on. During the most traumatic moments, as when the three fruit-headed Lords remove Mary’s intestine, Moodey is completely sidelined. By the end, we see Moodey resolved to her inability to control the events she has been recounting: her mother’s childhood trauma, coming out, and illness. She must take a break from the recounting of the contents of this letter. She serves the audience tea and has a solo dance party. Dance break over, she sits slightly upstage, her arms around knees tucked tightly to her chest, witnessing Mary recount childhood trauma and profess her love for her daughter.

It was not the easiest show to follow. The wonderfully grotesque fruit masks worn by the three Lords often obscured their speech, the scene jumped from one fantastical or disembodied or opaque place to another, and a too frequent imbalance in the audio levels drowned out several key moments of dialogue. I can’t imagine this was intentional, but it did offer for me my own confrontation with the things that I can’t control and how I must live with them anyway. The very last moment of the play concludes features an unexpected flourish from the upstage right scroller. It whipped rapidly through the cool hues of magenta, purple, lilac, blue, aqua, before the lights went out. Was this another stroke in a masterpiece of understanding the limits of human control? Or, perhaps even more satisfying, an inadvertent demonstration of not-firm-enough hold all theater artists have on the work they do? Perhaps that is a secret lightning designer Megan Lang will take to the grave.

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