Jessica Anne and Leah Urzendowski Courser
Jessica Anne and Leah Urzendowski Courser Credit: Maggie Fullilove-Nugent

Growing up girl these days means sometimes you’re up, and sometimes you’re crying alone eating hot chocolate mix. We’re taught to shatter glass ceilings, but there are daily struggles that can feel more pressing. Leggings versus tights: Are either of them considered pants? Or: Were your multiple sexual partners “questionable,” warranting an HIV test? The Neo-Futurists’ latest, a thoughtful and wildly entertaining pageant parody created by Megan Mercier and directed by Stephanie Shaw, features five “grown-up” women on a baffled quest for the respect they think comes with being a “full-realized member of society.” Through song, dance, acrobatics, and free-association ranting, each cast member enlists her singular talents and life experiences to present a wonderfully honest look at a loaded word: feminist.

Pitting each woman against the others in a Vaseline-smile, Miss Congeniality-style cage match, The Miss Neo Pageant illustrates just how unattainable female camaraderie can feel when the sparkly bitch next to you keeps stealing your spotlight; contestant names like Miss I’m Not Gonna Cry provide evidence of how stressful the lady rat race can be. While judging each performance singly is decidedly not in the sisterhood spirit, as a critic I must introduce the hugely talented cast (most are Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind regulars), whose solo works each exert a creative energy and magnetic pull that’s a pleasure to feel for someone usually stuck behind the fourth wall.

Mercier, who’s also the Neo-Futurists’ artistic director, calls herself a southern belle, adding, “I don’t need your help, but if you don’t offer it I’ll shit in your purse.” She’s said that one of her goals in creating the show was to “establish viable relationships with other women, to proudly draw my strength from them,” and her success is clear onstage. While each actress was highlighted individually, the others displayed only looks of admiration, signaling a cohesive team putting the work ahead of self-interest.

Opportunities for audience participation are well crafted throughout. One of the best moments is Mercier’s bit about the “panty tree,” a supposed old southern tradition in the vein of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. She enlists a woman from the crowd to join the club and hang her underwear from a tree branch. On the night I attended, a brave soul graciously shed her bike shorts for the group and became an honorary member of the sorority. In an audience Q&A, Mercier admits she’d probably have had more confidence at an early age if she’d been born a man, but wouldn’t be able to pull off cockiness as charm.

Cute, pint-sized Jessica Anne is sick and tired of being referred to as cute and pint-sized, and it shows in her raw performance as Miss Unbridled Rage. Anne’s piercing and stubborn stare is unsettling in a deadpan rant about Anne Hathaway, whom she says won the Oscar for being “pretty enough to be Hollywood ugly” in Les Miserables. In the Q&A, she associated “having it all” with 1985 and shoulder pads.

Leah Urzendowski Courser, who could win a coolest-hair competition, is the muscled Miss Crispy. Her strength becomes a powerful window into her daily gender scuffle—she feels “not a girl, not yet a woman”—through well-timed physical comedy and displays of brute force. In one scene she kvetches and clowns around on roller skates. In another she attacks an enormous tire (the patriarchy?) with a sledgehammer in her skivvies, then grabs a slinky dress on a hanger and confidently struts offstage.

Tif Harrison, Miss I’m Not Gonna Cry, exhibits a wide emotional range in both a melancholic monologue about feeling life slowly disappear and a goofy, if overlong, bit about taking a coffee break. Molly Plunk, Miss Indiana and the tallest of the pack, comes across as a charismatic mess of limbs. In one scene, she literally walks the feminist tightrope that the show tries to navigate, exhibiting focused command of her body.

Apart from its cast, the greatest strength of The Miss Neo Pageant is that it knows there isn’t one way to talk about feminism and gender, and that a conversation about self-image and society’s expectations is perfectly suitable for mixed company—not just those wearing underwire and a Diva Cup. Punctuated by expressive dance breaks to “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!,” the pageant really comprises thousands of conversation threads, woven together without being forced into the service of an overarching message. Except for this one takeaway: Being a girl is bewilderingly complex. We might as well help each other through the confusion.