D.C.’s annual Women’s Voices Theatre Festival is (I’m gonna use an analogy many will find sexist, but I’m not stopping or looking back) like an annual garden that blooms each winter (it’s a cabbage garden — deal with it). Once a year, seeds planted at theatres all over Washington come to fruition, and the only thing you can count on is variety. History lessons, ethnic dramas, modern comedies … the 2018 festival has your favorite flavor somewhere.
Tucked away in Woolly Mammoth’s black box — a hidden corner of the garden, if you will — is dog & pony dc’s Peepshow, which bills itself as the only festival production entirely conceived, written and performed by women. It is also likely the only one featuring a surreal birth scene set to the Arabian Dance from The Nutcracker, or wooden cut-outs comparing the objectification of the Statue of Liberty to that of Betty Boop, or a slate of mock-professional wrestling matches featuring such fighters as “The Housewife” and “Riot Grrrl.”
If any of that sounds “too weird,” then this is not the show for you. Over the course of five “spectacles,” the women of dog & pony deconstruct the male gaze, “feminine” roles, and the insidious self-misogyny of makeup, dance music and, apparently, leotards bedazzled about the crotch. Very little of it has narrative, none of it offers solid resolution, and you have to drag your chair around a lot as the focus shifts all around you.
There’s a lot to commend here. Morals and lessons dart in and out, singly and in pairs, like frightened fish, and the ones that get through are pretty unimpeachable. (I hope dog & pony, which has the guns out for hidden sexism in language, isn’t offended by the garden comparison, which was meant as a compliment.) And the production integrates deaf performers and ASL in a way that certainly more plays in the hometown of Gallaudet University should.
Performers Sandra Mae Frank, Natasha Gallop, Amelia Hensley, Ouida Maedel, Kerry McGee, Tosin Olufolabi, Elaine Yuko Qualter, and Carol Spring all play multiple parts, and all distinguish them well. That’s in no small part thanks to the amazing costume work from Claudia Brownlee, who looks like she was given all but the show’s entire budget.
The opening number re-appropriates the “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago, with four of our actresses done up in violet corsets and period wigs, forcefully condemning “She had it coming!” with fatalistic righteousness, while reminding the audience of our complicity, “no matter how woke.” Later, there’s a beauty pageant, but, spoiler alert: Aunt Jemima loses.
Some vignettes go on longer than they should, and some are more transparent than others. But sometimes the most opaque poems are the most satisfying. The scene that sticks with me stars Maedel as a bather posed by the seaside. She basks in the sun at great length, she waves coquettishly, she reads a few pages of Wuthering Heights (not a title chosen by accident). Everything she does feels performative — more for us than her — though she radiates nothing but joy at her position. All of this is done wordlessly, with the wind and surf the only sounds. And then she begins to feed us: first strawberries, and then strawberries mixed with syrup (sweetness), pomegranate seeds (eros), and goat cheese (milk) — an entire sexual cycle in one snack. Entertainment that feeds you is never to be rudely pushed away, but is the message that even the most visually objectified of women have a feast to provide? Did she learn something from Catherine and Healthcliff she now wants to share? And how does it relate to the ocean, that ultimate moon-tied metaphor for femininity? I’d be lying if I said I was sure.
Directed by Rachel Grossman and running until Feb. 25, Peepshow has much to say. But it doesn’t always care if you understand.