at TinFish Theatre
How We Grew Breasts Without Really Trying
at the Josephinum
It seems every woman in America has heard Oprah’s message that women are special because they’re women. That we’re part of some exclusive group that happens to comprise half the population. Thanks to Oprah and others–Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues), Robert Harling (Steel Magnolias)–we’ve inspected and analyzed every corner of the American female experience, from our bodies to our emotions to our intellects to our relationships, and concluded that women are superior beings.
But women have bad qualities too. Lots of them. And these two new works put them on display. Susan H. Pak’s Boys! is really about girls–or rather women who act like the mean popular girls in junior high. Pak’s characters spend hours on the phone gossiping about their friends and reveling in others’ misfortunes. Cruelly ambitious yet needy and insecure, they bully and demean one another and mock outsiders who aren’t up to their shallow standards. And they do all this while talking so quickly it seems they can’t be breathing.
Boys! revolves around three friends. Maureen Johnson and Kristin Morris are lawyers–which in real life wouldn’t necessarily mean that they’re competitive, bitter, and vindictive, but here it does. The third member of the trio, 25-year-old Jocelyn Weber, wears tight tiger-print skirts to attract wealthy older men, who take her on cruises and buy her gifts. All three women are dependent on men. Maureen is sleeping with Ray (Brandon Su)–they have sex every morning even though he’s a married man who keeps promising to get a divorce and she has a boyfriend, Pat (Dwight Sora), who spends his days watching TV and taking hits off a long purple bong. Kristin’s boyfriend, Kyle (Choky Lin), is like a house pet: she supports him financially and takes care of him emotionally. She thinks she’ll convince him to marry her even though he’s said emphatically that he never will.
The loosely woven plot follows these relationships but focuses on Jocelyn’s entanglement with a former beau, Richard (Shreeyash Palshikar), newly divorced and now stalking her (he sends her a light sculpture that includes a creepy enlarged picture of her eye). In the first act, Jocelyn sues Richard for the right to be left alone. When a riotous court scene resolves that issue just before intermission, there doesn’t seem much reason for a second act. And indeed it’s less driven by plot: all three women simply go back and forth about the men in their lives. By the end very little is settled, but that seems right–these women are permanently indecisive.
Kristen Chan is the right degree of bitter as the ferocious Maureen, and Denice Lee plays the slutty Jocelyn as a puppyish young woman with no self-control. Helen Young is the blandest as Kristen, but she doesn’t get much help from Pak’s script, which shortchanges the character. The men are fairly interchangeable, as they’re meant to be, though Palshikar does a nice turn as doe-eyed, untrustworthy Richard.
Throughout the play, two sportscasters (Ron Mok and Cy Shim) clad in suit jackets and boxers chatter about the game of the hour, which reflects what’s happening in the characters’ lives. This device helps us take the three women lightly, glossing over the real damage they do to others, especially Ray’s wife (Leanne Hilgart). The sportscasters aren’t always used effectively, but they’re hilarious in the tight court scene.
In fact the court scene shows director Marc Rita at his best. Too often the story is hard to follow; we’re not sure who’s talking to whom on the phone or which situation the sportscasters are commenting on. This is partly the playwright’s fault: there are 13 characters, and many are not only unnecessary but take the story off on incomprehensible tangents.
Yet Boys! is funny. With their pettiness, their jealousies and rages, their indecision, these women make us laugh at ourselves, at all the stupid things we do even when we know better. At the same time, we can be thankful that we’re not them.
Though women’s less-than-charming traits are also on display in How We Grew Breasts Without Even Trying, here they’re revealed inadvertently. Creator-director Kerensa Peterson says in her program note that many of the six women performers called the development process “free therapy.” And we get to watch it, through a combination of monologues, choral recitations, and free association. We witness the earnest, humorless recounting of painful feelings; the melodramatic recollection of difficult experiences; and the exhortation to celebrate one’s own strength and power. The medicinal feeling is reinforced by the Josephinum’s multipurpose room, where the audience is seated in folding chairs in a semicircle around the players.
The show is about growing into adulthood, and toward the end the cast starts asking the audience what things make them feel like adults. The performers respond with understanding nods, compassionate “umms,” and whispered phrases like “Thank you for sharing.”
These postadolescent young women seem trapped in whining victimhood. Still struggling with the question of what adulthood is, they haven’t mined their experiences deeply enough. We get well-worn tales of disappointment, not the disappointment itself. It’s as if it were a woman’s job to recount her heartaches, no matter how pedestrian and dull. This is a staged Oprah show, not a play.
Yet it doesn’t deliver Oprah’s happy message about discovering and creating one’s own life. Instead things happen to women, women don’t make them happen. Breasts come or they don’t. Menstrual blood marks the end of childhood. Boys touch girls and it’s confusing, not exciting, not the beginning of girls’ own sexual exploration. Family tragedy and death pound brave hearts down. The timing gets murky at this point, and the show seems to skip from elementary and junior high school to the era beyond college–a widespread coming-of-age period ignored here. These women suddenly find themselves trapped in the grind of the workaday world–having a job, buying groceries–without a way to make sense of it all. The characters’ revelations are accompanied by odd onstage movement, random bending, stretching, and sliding across the stage that adds little context or interest.
The show’s one redeeming feature is Demetria Thomas’s monologue about her devolution from proud, happy child to fearful, anorexic young woman. She’s the only ensemble member to show any kind of transformation, and it happens slowly and sadly and inevitably. Thomas’s story is not about a woman because she’s a woman, and therefore special and therefore good. Her story doesn’t celebrate or condemn her character–it simply tells the tale of a human life lived painfully. Bad things do happen to women, and not just to those who behave badly.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Patrick Harold Productions.