“Blessed Unrest” Misconceptions: A Mismatched Use of Traditional Theater Mechanics
When I ventured out to see Misconceptions, a collaboration between Jessica Burr’s theater company Blessed Unrest and veteran theatric pedagogue and playwright Stephen Wangh, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew the play was about abortion, was 30 years in the making, and was inspired by the overturning of Roe in June 2022. In general, I tend to be wary of works that take on such encompassing topics without a precise angle. Despite the admirability of using an artistic medium for political discourse, without some paring down, or personalization of the issue, the work can suffer the weight of its chosen subject. Specificity is the key attribute in Richard Yates’ novel (later turned into a film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) Revolutionary Road. The story isn’t about abortion but uses abortion to confirm the tragedy of the central characters’ marriage. The audience picks up on the severity of the decision to abort a pregnancy, Yates need not explain.
In 2023, the talking points surrounding abortion, and its intensely personal nature, have become commonplace. Each news cycle declaring the addition of new legislation making abortions impossible leads to the same retorts: freedom vs. faith, big government vs. small, race, and access vs. responsibility. While the passage of time has not lent itself to an increasingly sophisticated comprehension of reproductive health, it has allowed for the lessening of taboos surrounding the procedure, discussions of family planning, sexual freedom and exploration and autonomy. In 2023, more people who have gotten abortions are talking about them, proving the overwhelming reality of abortion bans: political ploys will not rid the world of the procedure or the intellectual potential of the procedure. Pregnant individuals will always have the cognitive ability to question what to do with their pregnancies.
What’s distinct about Misconceptions is its playwright. Stephen Wangh now lives in Brattleboro, Vermont, a professor emeritus from both Naropa University in Colorado and NYU’s Tisch School of The Arts. At Tisch, he taught at the Experimental Theater Wing. He completed an MFA in acting first at the Yale School of Drama, finishing the degree at Tisch, and while there, in 1967, studied directly with Jerzy Grotowski. Given the impact of the era in which he studied, Wangh’s experience gives him an institution-like air; he’s imbued with the history of American theater. But professional credentials, though pointing towards great ability, only scratch the surface of Wangh’s personhood. Through research, I discovered what a kind, gentle, thoughtful, and loving soul Wangh is. He supplements his institutional knowledge with the radical compassion and acceptance of the 1960s, the era in which he became a dramatist.
In a Commencement Speech, given in 2020 for the Terry Knickerbocker Studio, an acting conservatory in Brooklyn, Wangh sits in a beautifully-painted red room and asks the participants to call out where they’re zooming in from. He gave this speech during the first summer of the pandemic, post-George Floyd. Wangh doesn’t shy away from discussions of the dire state of America, even on the precipice of these students’ great achievements. Wangh uses the situation they’ve collectively found themselves in, those on the Zoom call and all Americans, to relay a similar historical experience: 1968 and the death of Martin Luther King Jr, “at the hands of the FBI ” he points out. As Wangh recounts this historical moment and the tumult that came with, he states the necessary exclamation for the rest of his remarks: “The world is falling apart, why am I doing theater?!”with tears in his eyes. Even as he provides an example of the political theater he did in the 60s, he isn’t satisfied. Even as he states he went on to train other acting students in how to create political theater, he isn’t satisfied. In reenacting feelings of his youth, he was and is plagued by the uncertainty that art is a means to engage with the world. What is the value of the artistic pursuit if all around us Rome burns? But what’s Wangh’s purpose in highlighting this tense tradeoff to individuals who have already made up their minds to pursue acting as their life, or at least part of it? Has he taken the opportunity as a commencement speaker to make these young people second guess themselves? Of course not. As he stares into the Zoom abyss, donning suspenders and tortoiseshell glasses, with the kind gaze of a father or grandfather, Wangh explains how vital art is in conveying the type of truth, contemplation, attachment, and commitment necessary for taking on political enterprises, begging questions about injustice, and challenging systems of inequality. Wangh’s concentration on acting, in explaining the art’s societal purposes, cracks open the enterprise. He details how in order to act out a scene, an actor must commit to the vulnerability of full presence. It is only through embodying the now that the actor can provide the emotionality vital for enactment and responding to their scene partner. He cites a line from Romeo and Juliet and Streetcar with the effortless authority of a seasoned professor who knows the necessity of these texts beyond their popular appeal, and the pedagogical importance of working with them in becoming an artist. Wangh concludes by settling the initial conflict. To be an actor, to be an artist, is not to turn away from the world or partake in a frivolous pursuit. To be an artist is to be attuned to the coursing emotions we’re all forced to feel when the world around us bursts open in pain and chaos. The actor can tap into these feelings on command, their training has taught them to, and show us all we’re not alone in feeling so deeply. The actor demonstrates the vivid presentness we must have in order to tackle the problems that confront us. Before a solution, we must first look at the shrapnel. The actor is trained in shrapnel detection and response. The skill of the actor is to respond to the nature of the shrapnel– is it Shakespearean, or Williamsian? In the two times I watched Wangh’s speech, I found myself hanging onto every word, like a student in the back row of a lecture at The Actor’s Studio noting Stanislavski’s every breath. Though Wangh’s gentleness is out of step with 1950s New York City, his thoughts are so ripe with guidance and so defiantly bold, they take on the stakes of “The Method.” Wangh shows theater and acting as an intellectual and emotional practice. The particularity of Wangh’s method is encouraging the actor to embrace humanity and welcome the world in, eschewing the idea of its frivolity and removal from daily concerns. Art is a worthwhile pursuit capable of making the world and its inhabitants more whole.
In researching, I also read an essay by Wangh reflecting on how he came to write a play about abortion. It was June of 1971, and he and his now-wife Suzanne were looking for a place to land after their theater collective in Cape Cod folded. They decided to move to New Mexico and become candle makers, where, upon arriving, Suzanne realized she was pregnant. New Mexico enacted policies to ease access to abortions pre-Roe, so Suzanne was able to get the procedure. Neither of them felt ready to start a family– they were young and their relationship was vulnerable– but the journey with Suzanne’s health didn’t end there. She ended up getting a particular version of an intrauterine device (IUD) that caused an influx of microbes to the uterus. Suzanne suffered side effects from the contraception, including months of abstaining from sex, which Wangh notes tested their young partnership. Eventually, the two married and decided to have a child. It took years, leading them to wonder if the abortion in New Mexico was a mistake. Today they have a forty-one-year-old son who is a father of two children. I found the essay remarkably refreshing, not just in its honesty, but in Wangh’s capacity to show up for Suzanne emotionally. Though he was not the one going through the medical and physical experience, he was by her side the whole time thinking through the ramifications of her experience and noting his own emotional turbulence. I had a hard time, while reading, imagining a man my, or close to my, own age engaging so deeply with such an intimate experience. It felt like a snapshot into a different era, a time of simpler and kinder familial values, where an enduring romantic partnership was a norm and expectation; perhaps even a source of pride. Wangh echoed the voice of Seymor Levov, albeit the radical and theatrical equivalent. I had high hopes for this downtown production– there is much to like, even love, about Wangh– but I wondered how they could pull off a cogent narrative from so many ideas. Wangh’s essay detailed his decision to explore abortion later on, spending years interviewing women around the country about their experience with family planning. But the interview can be an ephemeral interaction between two people. Could this type of exchange add enough to a theatrical narrative without making the play seem listless in the consistent coming and going of characters?
Misconception tells the story of a young single mother and performance artist Harriet, played by Hilary Dennis. She’s moved to Iowa from New York City but is called back to the City when MoMA asks her to perform her piece–involving her own menstrual blood–that’s just been positively reviewed in Vogue. The play starts with Harriet revealing to her best friend Darcelle (played by Celli Pitt) that there’s no blood. They agree to source blood from a local butcher who will slaughter chickens on-site for Harriet’s project. When Harriet gets to the airport with her five-year-old daughter, and goes through security, the TSA employee accidentally grazes her breast and she shrieks in pain– she’s pregnant, she realizes. Harriet’s unplanned pregnancy is meant to be the central conflict of the play. She suddenly finds herself caught between two places and two lives: Iowa and New York City and performance artist versus mother. Misconceptions doesn’t allow Harriet much slack. She must decide. This is accurate in depicting the reality of pregnancy– if not aborted if the individual is physically able to, the pregnancy will carry until term– but the rigidity of this choice doesn’t make for a compelling narrative. From the start of the play, Harriet’s choice seems obvious. She’s going to have an abortion.
In order to figure out what to do, Harriet decides to take on a second artistic project. She’ll embark on a series of interviews with individuals who have experienced abortion themselves or are involved with abortion policy (lawyers, academics). It’s a nod to Wangh’s own process of creating Misconceptions within Misconceptions. In undertaking this project most of the drama of the play unfolds. Harriet becomes consumed by the concept of abortion and other people’s thought processes. The play presents Harriet’s new art piece as an abstraction and disassociation to the real physical problem that’s happening to her, growing inside of her. Her friend Darcelle (a recurring presence who reveals her own abortion towards the play’s end) acknowledges this avoidance and begs Harriet to give up the art project and focus on herself, what I’ll refer to as the “Confrontation Scene.” But in starting a new art project, it’s clear Harriet has chosen who she wants to be. She is an artist who already has a kid and she isn’t going to have another one– it would take her away from her aspirations and lock her into a partnership that fizzled due to her former partner (Jorge played by Sean Mana) philandering ways. The play shows traces of the love between Harriet and Jorge that existed when they were together but their relationship isn’t plausible (Jorge is Spanish-speaking and the source of occasional bilingualism in this work). Harriet’s heart isn’t in the relationship and in the scenes where the two embrace, she appears to appease Jorge’s enduring love rather than requite it. Staying with Jorge isn’t a compelling reason to keep the child, he’s emotionally unavailable and seems to only bring chaos. This is made clear to the audience. In fact, nothing points towards any benefit of keeping the child. Perhaps her already having a child makes her keeping a second one less plausible. The play doesn’t really show a conundrum other than the logistical burden Harriet has to deal with in getting an abortion in order to return to her art. The emotions that are drummed up in this production are not towards Harriet’s choice, but rather towards the idea of abortion itself.
The most dramatic scenes happen when Harriet discusses abortions with the two women closest to her: her mother played by Ethelyn Friend–who delivered the strongest performance of the entire cast– and Darcelle. Friend, who also supplies the voice queues for Harriet’s daughter, plays a former American Ballet Theater dancer turned housewife. She has absolute command of this archetype and waltzes through space with a scarf elegantly draped around her neck and consistently posing in a relaxed fourth position. Harriet sees her mother as the outcome of choosing against abortion, but again Harriet already having a child makes this comparison shallow. Harriet’s mother gave up ballet for her baby and marries Harriet’s father in a timeline that makes Harriet question the romance of their union. Harriet probes her mother trying to find feelings of regret and remorse, to which her mother concedes some– she misses her life as a dancer, but would never give up the love she’s cultivated for her daughter. Not much help for Harriet’s “decision,” frankly.
Darcelle is the most critical presence in Harriet’s life, in both senses of the word: she plays a huge emotional role and is overtly critical of Harriet’s thought processes. Darcelle is invested in fostering Harriet’s career despite having her own as a science teacher. Darcelle’s investment doesn’t seem fair, particularly considering she’s a woman of color. In fact, Darcelle highlights one of the play’s many blind spots. Though Misconceptions has traces of self-awareness, the traces are limited and ultimately reveal themselves as dated. When Darcelle points out how White Harriet’s abortion project is, she is burdened with the role of educating Harriet while being siphoned off into a secondary role and fulfilling a historical stereotype of the “Black best friend.” After being confronted by Darcelle, Harriet exclaims that she hates feeling ignorant. I felt both confused and uncomfortable by this remark. Harriet is meant to be a radical performance artist (she wears black lipstick, doc martins, and a leather coat) living in 2023, but her confession was so unaware and self-indulgent– and yet it was also a moment of vulnerability and confession whose sentiment lingers in all of us regardless of changing mores of political discourse. But then is this play really about the interaction between characters or is it about Harriet’s interiority? The datedness of Harriet’s thought made the chronology of this play, in 2023, implausible. When researching Wangh, I saw on his CV that Misconceptions was actually written in 2017. It was meant to debut in 2020 but was delayed due to COVID. During its delay, Roe was overturned, a quite remarkable coincidence for a play about abortion, and yet, this “opportune” event wasn’t really accounted for. Roe is an afterthought, a sort of passive footnote to try to contextualize this project, and the pandemic carries the same soggy presence. Suddenly the age of Wangh’s project, the many years in which Misconception had come to be, started to feel like the actual foundation of this play. The way abortion was discussed with such reverence and detachment felt retro, although this may be the limits of Wangh’s standpoint, no matter how compassionate a partner he may be. The final large and rather glaring blindspot of the play is gender. The play is entirely about cis-gendered people, which is okay, but it’s a decision with a contextual consequence. Discussions of abortion as a procedure for cis-gendered women place the discussion in an era before we accounted for the divergence from a gender binary. Today there’s some sort of collective understanding that any body with “necessary” organs for reproduction are threatened by the prospects of an unplanned pregnancy. Attempting to fit this play into contemporary times places such a burden on the narrative that it starts to betray itself. The reversal of Roe could have been a further impetus for Misconception’s run, but it is not what’s playing out on stage.
What I saw on stage was not really a play, but a project with theatrical elements. If “the play” as a medium is a snapshot of a bunch of characters with varying importance trying to deal with some amount of difficulty, this play attempted to do that, but these attempts, instead of being a source of structure only made an already diffuse narrative more so. It’s not that too much was happening but not enough was to justify Misconceptions’ current form. The presence of the butcher slaughtering chicken (which reminded me of Suzanna Moore’s In The Cut), the various people Harriet interviewed, and the sort of Greek chorus enacting historical instances of abortion and misogyny, made it seem like Misconceptions was trying every trick in the book ignoring the fact that the foundation on which these tricks must be played weren’t there. At first, I thought Wangh, and Burr as the director, were attempting to eschew tradition, but upon reflection, I feel Misconceptions is hostage to it. Misconceptions isn’t really an ensemble work. It’s a two-person show about a person exploring abortion as a topic, and their interiority, and abortion, as a character: a dyadic exploration between an individual person and a chosen subject. The interesting part of this project is that Wangh took on a subject seeking to learn more. I would have liked to see that displayed on stage, unabashedly, without the pressure of a traditional form. It feels strange that Wangh’s play is ultimately rigid. You’d think a practitioner of experimental theater would be comfortable abandoning heritage for the sake of a project’s essence. Abortion is a buzzing subject, there was no need for the story of Harriet as overlay. There are arguably two culprits here. One, Blessed Unrest is an ensemble theater company, and its mission may have overshadowed the work it put on. Two, the nature of interpretation will always allow for some amount of “shadow creation” between page and stage: even now, as I write this piece, I’m not sure what to attribute to Wangh and what to Burr. During the performance, I found myself wishing I had the libretto in my hand to reference.
Sitting in the intimate theater on First Avenue, where only a few weeks ago I saw Sarah Einspainer’s Lunch Bunch, I saw the actors thinking through their roles and making choices as artists. In the confrontational scene between Harriet and Darcelle, tears streaked Pitti’s cheeks. A few times actors made eye contact with me. I thought about how dedicated these people are, how they get to work with a legend like Wangh, and how gratifying it must be to be in a play. How for the next few weeks these actors get to tackle conflicts onstage and then return to their everyday lives, undeniably altered. Meanwhile, before me, a performance was taking place. We were involved in something together, the audience and actors. Seeing Misconceptions reminded me why we must see live performance and productions of all sizes. Art enacted before us is an exercise in making sense of the world we live in, and the task that befalls us all. As performers continue to chip away at this occupation artistically, their efforts must be supported, especially if Wangh’s fearful retort rings in your ears from time to time.
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