More Muscle! Liza Birkenmeier’s ‘the hollower’ (director Kristy Dodson) presented by New Light Theater Project
When I first taught a feminisms and theater course in 2008, Obama had just been elected and some falsely claimed that we were now entering a ‘post-racial’ and ‘post-feminist’ era. This was not a first: feminism had been repeatedly pronounced dead over the years. After debating our affiliations and disidentifications with various popular and scholarly feminist works, along with the utility and risks of belonging to a movement, I never knew where to end the course. Any contemporary play provocatively foregrounding gender and intersectionality felt arbitrary— one strand among many in the tangle of what we might call contemporary feminism. Since then a lot— and not enough— has changed. Occupy, Women’s marches, #blacklivesmatter, #metoo: all attest to this social moment’s revived necessity for strategically visible movements.
The hollower (through June 9th), described as tackling “the perils of having a body in a repressed, imperialist, and moralistic world” made me both ask— and cringe— at the question: What might a millennial feminist play look like? For playwright Liza Birkenmeier and director Kristy Dodson, it’s wildly diverse: black, white, Asian, queer, and part-animal. It’s “Otto” (Patrena Murray), a middle-aged single black lesbian who’s lonely suburban life is periodically invaded by two unlikely strangers: “Bit” (Reyna de Courcy) a white punky-pagan teenager wrapped in pink fur who guzzles cola and stiffly balances atop platform cheetah heels and “Pigman,” an opportunistic reporter with a hoof for a hand who promises to feature Otto’s vacant life story in a podcast.
Characters routinely make surprise entrances via doors, windows, and walls into Otto’s hyper-naturalistic kitchen, jammed with amazon boxes and goya cans by set-designer You-Shin Chen. Public radio reports of fatalities in the Middle East and a buzzing symphony of insect life provide the sonic backdrop, topped with a doo-wop ‘funeral doom’ performance by Bit’s band, the “Chemotherapy Marionettes.” Relentlessly non-sequitur and tonally absurd from the start, the staging, full of many (many) surprises, induces a kind of shock fatigue. For something described as a “haunt-comedy,” there are definitely a few funny moments but it’s sad. Really sad.
Frumpy Otto wears faded nursing scrubs and shuffles through her cluttered suburban kitchen at all hours of the night. The oddest of couples, she and technicolor Bit cross paths and often simulate the cutting intimacies of an uneasy mother-daughter pair. At turns Bit chides, ventriloquizes, or seems to know Otto better than she knows herself: “you stopped fighting with yourself in the mirror” and “you’ve done a really good job of bonding with me tonight.” All the while Otto seems blithely baffled by Bit’s lock-kneed presence, domineering precocity, and hunger for care.
In response to Otto’s gentle suggestion that drinking soda may interfere with her circadian rhythms, Bit launches into a litany of horrors that befall young women her age: they get “sold as sex slaves…die in stranger’s yards…get shot in algebra…huff paint steal jewelry go missing eat lipstick join cults and commit suicide and all you can ever think about is my freaking circadian rhythm!” Occupying the contemporary girl body is haunted by the knowledge, and terrifying visceral expectation, of any number of awful violations.
Similarly, inhabiting an unattached queer black body comes with its host of severe social projections. Otto quits her job, pours booze and powdered doughnuts into her body and seems loosely attached to a hidden inner life, like a slightly deflated helium balloon bump-floating along a dusty floor. Others’ far more pronounced desires project onto her as if she’s mere surface. Ryan Wesley Stinnett’s slimy “Pigman” and his football geared assistant “Missy” (ToniAnne DiFilippo) climb through the window to feature Otto in a demeaning podcast on her memoir entitled Nothing. She reads a section: “this is the part where I imagine how nice I’d be to the dog I don’t have.” He then asks her a line of disparaging questions like “Do you think you’ll get cancer?” and “Why is it that you’ve done so little with your life?” She graciously answers and at the end of the interview he presents her with the gift of a baby.
While Otto is relentlessly pursued by Pigman, Bit solicits the help of Wilkin Rush George III (Samuel Im) to do the claymation for her film project on young women in 17th century France. A striving, arrogant fellow student, he needs all of his pre-college work to be nothing less than “exceptional” and voices pompous dramaturgical critiques of her vision. He routinely rebuffs Bit’s attempts to bond, befriend, or boyfriend him, until she desperately strips down into her white underpants and forcibly mounts him.
When Otto finally refuses to play along with Pigman, he slowly strips the protective gear and helmet off Missy, lays her on the kitchen table, asks Otto to hold her down, and cuts her. Otto is upset, but Missy’s cool with it— she does it in the name of “social mobility?…achieving?” One woman’s refusal to participate in the social straightjackets necessitates another’s sacrifice; the hollower’s women are negatively bound to each other in a zero sum game. Power, for Missy comes at the expense of her body: it must be hyperbolically padded or vulnerable to injury.
Bit and Otto inhabit similarly fraught– hollow– social spaces waiting to be filled, or emptied from loss. Bit wants to simultaneously be out all night but have a parent who watches out for her. Without a partner or a child Otto is rendered socially invisible, forced into the role of figuring out how to nurture Bit. Neither hyper-sexualized teen nor asexualized middle-aged woman hold stable, autonomous, or powerful positions.
After a raucous goth-glam performance by the Chemotherapy Marionettes, Otto’s home is completely destroyed and covered with a plastic tarp. Bit and Otto are left alone sitting outside. All along, I was left curious— somewhat unsettled— by Otto’s limited character and disappointed that the play arrives in her learning how to ‘mother’ Bit – an adherence to the more conventional social roles that the play seems to want to critique. I think I understand her as the haunted, hollowed out source of others’ projected desires. And yet, the play’s refusal to grant even a glimpse of interiority, agency, or a sense of her past or future felt like a double offense. Murray, a luminously present performer is left reactive to others from start to finish, while over-the-top, exasperating Bit gets to imagine a future and remake herself: “I need to pick a new way to be.”
Despite the hollower’s rich scenic design, strong acting, and politically provocative premises, I was left bearing a tired, if bemused witness to all kinds of clever gestures. If the play is about being in the body – of a woman, a person, a play – this premiere production is overstuffed with entertaining twitches, lines, and way too many additive surprises. In that final performance that takes down the house, the band punctuates a love song with screams of “You are strong but have no MUSCLE!” At a certain point, I too wanted to shout for more. A sense of the depths of support – the bone and muscle underneath it all. That said, I remain curious to see how Birkenmeier’s weird and critical queer feminist vision will come into sharper focus on a future stage.