RETURN TO GENDER

The Industrial Arts Theatre Company's Goddesses is equal parts sense and nonsense. Written by company member Mary Guzzy-Siegel in collaboration with five other women in the company, it can be witty and charming at times and embarrassing and didactic at others. The liberties this feminist piece takes with history and anthropology are just a trifle too convenient--and yet there's something here that's worth the effort. What the company needs (and this is painful to acknowledge) is an editor: There's a worthy theater production in there somewhere.

The show opens with women in black leotards dancing around, calling out the names of the elements and announcing the multicultural array of ancient goddesses they represent. Aphrodite appears on a platform and tells us all about cosmic realities and the importance of nature worship. As she leaves, young Moira (another bright performance by Rachel Shwayder) rises for work, and we hear ads for beauty aids while the entire company bounces to Dion's "Runaround Sue" and mimes dressing for work. Guzzy-Siegel's point is to contrast the important and the trivial--how women's lives have degenerated from universal concerns to materialistic inanities.

Then Moira, a wage slave with a desire for something better (a singing career) goes to the office. On her lunch break, in one of the best scenes of the play, she is accosted in the park by three ancient priestesses and whisked back in time to the Garden of Eden. A revisionist telling of the creation myth makes the evil snake of the biblical story into a two-headed symbol of knowledge. Leslie Jesperson and Margaret Johnson are particularly delightful together as the wily but prophetic snake and the innocent and curious Eve, recast here as the mother of history.

Next we meet the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus as he sits with one of his characters (Orestes, who killed his mother because she killed his father). Three goddesses appear and threaten "the spin doctor for the patriarchy" with all kinds of indignities if he doesn't start writing some good plays for women. It's a terrifically funny bit.

The show is most insightful when it immerses itself in historical data--even when that data is exaggerated or questionable, like the earnest assertion that there was once a time when women ruled and everything was peachy keen. But a scene from the sixteenth century about the burning of a witch--a woman guilty of nothing worse than herbal curing--features a reading from an actual Inquisition-era document, "The Witches' Hammer," in which women are described as a necessary evil of nature. The evidence of witchcraft cited prior to the immolation lists the prevention of conception and the performance of abortions as indictable offenses, so the reading has a particularly harrowing effect on the audience. Marta Barnard as the accused witch is the most riveting figure on stage--a great presence, she's as sensitive in tragedy as she is ferocious in comedy.

Later in the second act, we are treated to a round of "goddess Jeopardy" in which Newt Gingrich, modern mythologist Joseph Campbell and Tom Cruise compete over historical material. When the goddess gets finished with Newt, there's nothing left but a pile of hair. A most satisfying fantasy. Playwright Guzzy-Siegel gives the goddess a racy edge--very self-possessed and amusing.

The show's recurrent dance pieces, however, are trying. Instead of reinforcing the play's inspired wit, the redundant, super-serious "movement pieces" actually undermine it. Because the choreography is so lame and the company members have unequal skills as dancers, these interludes limp along interminably. Even worse are the pseudo-religious episodes. At the end of the play, the goddesses from the various cultures meld into one entity, Quan Yin, who works okay as a representative of the "female principle." But when the metaphor is turned into an icon and the audience is exhorted to worship her, we are suddenly in someone else's church--a distinctly unpleasant attempt at conversion. The women of the company aren't just playing priestesses, they're trying to be priestesses. The melodramatic language and the overblown gestures are disconcertingly self-indulgent. And all the proselytizing undermines the significance of the piece--its expose of the bogus standards women are held to and the chronic injustice done them throughout history.

What's called for here is a red pencil and a ruthless intolerance for drivel. Then Goddesses might make magic.

 
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