Photo by Randall Starr
At the start of Ella Hickson’s The Writer, now playing in Steep Theatre’s Georgette Verdin-directed production at The Edge Theatre, we meet two people, a man and a woman, on an empty theatrical stage. She claims to be there because she forgot her purse after the show ended, but her arrival means far more than that. She is, she tells him, a writer, and she is thoroughly disgusted by the overwhelmingly condescending and patriarchal play she has just witnessed. In her lengthy rant, actor Krystal Ortiz delivers an absolutely scathing condemnation of everything that made the play deplorable, from its director’s gratuitous decision to include an additional, unscripted rape scene to the sentimentalist inclusion of a real baby and a dog. “Like that’s the only pulse we can find,” she says, berating the cheap emotionality of the whole thing. “The world is cracking open and what I just saw is meant to heal us? We should be screaming, we should be speaking in tongues, in a fit, in a fucking – rage, naked, raging, arms open, screaming at the sky – There should not be a dog. There should not be a fucking dog. Not unless you’re going to cut its fucking tongue out.”
So, um, OK, we think, this is not going to be a play that pulls punches. It’s going to call out the male gaze as it is seen in the theatre and tear it down. It’s going to show how gender politics has infiltrated everything, and maybe how things could become better. Maybe, we assume, Hickson’s intent is to show us that, in this post-#MeToo world, we’d be better off jettisoning the stereotypical power structures and starting again. After all, the woman onstage is angry and hostile to the ways in which theatre consistently validates and recreates the patriarchal architecture of society, (“I walk on stage; first thing people think is – how old is she? How hot is she? How fuckable is she? You walk on stage – they think – what’s he got to say? What’s he going to do?”) So we come to see the genesis of her anger, and the man (Nate Faust)—who we learn is the theatre’s director—is as condescending as he can be, haughtily echoing her word choices and making fun of her hyperbole and accusing her in patronizing imagery of ignoring the very real need for a theatre to make money. “Being oppositional to everything, all the time, being so aggressive– all the time, undermines your argument. Take the note.” We further learn that they have met before, when she was a writing student and he was a professor. He praised her work and offered her a job writing in his theatre, and then, in practically the next breath, invited her to spend the night with him.
We quickly discover that what we have been watching is a scene from a play dramatizing the day that the Director, impressed by the Writer’s passion if not her understanding of the world, offers to give her a slot in the next season if she is willing to write a play. Ortiz is not playing the real Writer, nor is Faust playing the real Director. As the scene morphs into a Q&A about the play-in-progress, we meet the actual models for these characters. The real Director (Peter Moore) accuses her of being self-indulgent, to which the real Writer (Lucy Carapetyan) responds, “I’m not sure emotive, personal expression and self-indulgence are necessarily the same thing.”
And we’re off to the races.
The rest of the play is discontinuous, though Hickson and Verdin remain constantly in control. The playwright carefully plants ideas that, later on, she can resurrect and often undermine…much as she does in the opening, where Ortiz’s rants are countered by Moore’s condescension later on. We go through a scene set in an apartment that the Writer shares with her boyfriend, then to a liminal space in which she recalls a lovely, ethereal lesbian experience including dance and chanting, led into by an encounter with the mythological Semele (the mother of Dionysus, who—no coincidence here—was the patron god of the theatre). The group of women have to suffer to get here—we see one scene in which the Writer and another woman have to swim through freezing water before they can take part in a powerful celebration of feminism—but it is worth it to be able to create without a man to “direct” them.
Naturally, then, a fourth scene returns to the Director, who tells her to ditch the lesbians in the forest scene in favor of more time with the two main characters, in their not-so-delicate pas-de-deux, circling each other in what inevitably will become a release of sexual tension. That, he tells her, is what will make the play sell. Her unsubtle response is “It takes months, years to get plays on usually. I write about a director and it goes on straight away with the only condition being that we need more director in it.” It’s Male Gaze 101: the man always believes he knows what is best. He tells her, “You know there’s something between that writer and director that people want to watch, that people want to bite down on, and you’re a coward, you fly off to feminist manifestos and dancing in the fucking woods because you’re scared of what you might actually want to say if you followed it through.”
However, a final scene reveals that she has not taken his advice. We meet her and her girlfriend in their apartment, where they make gentle, sensual love together, which contrasts completely with a previous sex scene in the first apartment with the boyfriend. In that scene, he is totally in control, to the extent that we can’t even see her, and all he cares about is finishing; the instant he does so, the sex ends. Of course, it does: he got what he wanted from it, after all. The two women discuss the possibility of raising children together, and we realize that the Writer, having found success in the male world, has paid a price: her perspectives have been altered as she played the game. Where formerly, in her vision, she morphed into a giant, now she finds it distasteful to make love to tall women. Where she once was tormented by the possibility of a baby to the extent that she imagined hearing one everywhere, now she just shuts down the conversation. Where, moments earlier, she was a sexual partner, now she plays out another lesbian sex scene just as her boyfriend once did: selfishly.
Maybe it isn’t possible to live that heightened, beautiful life she had dreamed of; maybe the power model could simply work…better. In any case, the woman who once so desperately desired the sensual that she proclaimed, “I want awe…Either I can feel real but I’m living in a world of cartoons or you and the world are real and I feel like I go see-through,” has been subsumed by the need to fit into the commercial world. Where her boyfriend once told her she is not a Picasso, now she sees too much of herself in an anecdote about him about how, when painting Guernica, he ignored a powerful, real argument happening nearby and just went on painting…too engrossed in his work to feel like a human.
I totally loved this production and this play. It might easily have become polemical, but Hickson makes sure to present both sides (though there is no doubt where her sympathies lie). In each performer here (especially Carapetyan), Verdin’s directorial touch is palpable (as is her careful work in each scene’s interpretation). The tech work is outstanding, too, especially scenic designer Sotirios Livaditis’s and projection designer Erin Pleake’s work to create a simple but beautiful set, aided by Brandon Wardell’s lighting and Thomas Dixon’s sound. Also, in a play with so much simulated sex going on, Intimacy Director Gaby Labotka appears to have designed things to make them seem real but comfortable to the actors. This is not a play for everyone, but if you don’t mind being challenged both intellectually and emotionally—and you can handle the copious swearing and sex—you may well see it as the artistic gem it is.