at the Prop Theater


Theatre Wyrzuc at Cafe Voltaire

We all know it. We talk about it all the time, ever since a feminist consciousness was developed: women have an unhealthy obsession with their body image. We are constantly bombarded with the “perfect” bodies of women on TV, in the movies, in the magazines we read by the reams. We all know this messes with our self-esteem. But that doesn’t stop us from wanting to look just like them.

Sculpture in Vitro, subtitled “Growing Up Female in the Age of Liposuction,” gently drives this point home. Writers Molly McNett and Shirley Anderson simply lay out the pieces of their semiautobiographical story as sweetly and gently as if they were laying out a nightgown before bed. As all the pieces come together, we realize that these two are holding a mirror up to our own self-image. What we see is not comforting.

Using a series of sometimes seemingly unrelated vignettes, Sculpture in Vitro carefully traces the development of a young girl’s self-image as she grows toward womanhood. The concept of self-image is abstract–almost ethereal, this play suggests–as are the emotions it produces. But the results manifest themselves in very concrete and destructive forms.

McNett and Anderson play themselves in this production, supported by a cast of two women and a man (Allison Cain, Stephanie Howard, and Phil Smith). The show opens whimsically enough. We hear a scratched record and a soothingly mellifluous voice saying, “Welcome to the Walt Disney Read-Along Storybook. This is the story of . . . ” Two little-girl voices then break in. “Molly and Shirley!” they yell gleefully. The honey-voiced woman continues introducing the story until (as in all Walt Disney Read-Along Storybooks) Tinkerbell comes along and with a charming tinkle of bells indicates that it’s time to turn the page.

The next scene seems oddly out of place. Smith enters and parodies a schmoozing doctor. He goes to shake the hand of a seated woman and is blown to bits by her shotgun.

In the third scene, McNett and Anderson as their four-year-old selves dance with innocent and awkward beauty to a recording of “The Music Box Girl.” Cut to a slide of a little girl wearing only her underpants standing in a crowd of kids on top of a slide. In the background Anderson tells the story of how she and some of her girlfriends liked to go out wearing only their underwear and how she had a crush on the boy standing next to her in the photo.

These scenes of innocence continue, but they grow more insidious. In one, McNett cuts her own bangs, and the next day her first-grade teacher humiliates her by announcing, “Class. Look what Molly did. Let this be a lesson that you shouldn’t try yourself to cut your hair.”

Later, one of the women reads from a 1969 book, The No Willpower Diet (Thinning the Young), which provides mothers with all kinds of helpful dieting tips (such as adding food coloring to cottage cheese) to try when using the words fatso, blubberball, and whale don’t succeed in convincing a child that he or she needs to lose weight. Vignette after vignette unfolds in which the girls are interested in boys (as girls often are) and in trying to get a boy to notice them they become more and more concerned with their personal appearance. Boys disappear from the picture as the girls’ self-images loom ominously before them.

And as McNett and Anderson show, there’s so much “help” for a girl seeking to lose weight to improve her appearance. There are fashion magazines and the “Teen Perfect Features” photo page. There are teen diet books that suggest eating nude in front of a mirror to curb one’s appetite and give the girls a mantra to chant: “Me. Thin. Cheerleader.” As the girls become more obsessed with their appearance, they become withdrawn, lonely, and confused. What began as a young girl’s joyful acceptance of herself becomes crushed by a powerful machine that produces self-loathing. And by the end of the show, we realize how most women become cogs in that same machine.

Based on a book of poetry by Effie Mihopoulos, The Moon Cycle makes an attempt at being a nurturing feminist play but ends up as almost a parody of itself. It’s a sloppy, unfocused work–poorly adapted for the stage by Brian Gary Kirst and poorly performed by an ensemble of eight women.

Theatre Wyrzuc has a history of staging Kirst’s emotionally driven verse plays, but Kirst is unable to pull that same power out of Mihopoulos’s poetry, which in this book is devoted solely to the moon. Her language doesn’t jump off the page; it’s meditative and flowing. Kirst chooses to place these poems in the flimsy “real world” of a woman coping with life and all its difficulties. Unfortunately, none of the characters are well defined, their actions border on meaningless, and the poetry disappears in a sea of poor diction and false emotion.

This is a play about one woman and the moon. Mihopoulos’s poetry sometimes captures a certain mystery and magic, but in this production we find nothing worth knowing about either.