Lookingglass Theatre Company

at the Prop Theatre

When I was old enough to have my own room, in the heated porch off my parents’ apartment, my grandmother suggested I look under my bed every night just in case an intruder was hiding there. I did–and when I got my own apartment I also checked the closets and behind the shower curtain. It’s not a paranoia that rules my life, but apparently that caution is something I have in common with at least a few other women, if In the Eye of the Beholder is any indication. In the director’s notes for this performance piece Laura Eason explains that her story is a personal one, not intended to “speak for all women in all situations.” Yet the story is true enough that women will nod their heads in understanding as the main character grows from a girl her father calls “Princess” to a teenager barraged by lewd catcalls to a young woman sexually harassed by her employer.

More a series of events in one woman’s life than a true narrative, Eason’s one-hour show incorporates information from topical magazines and books (The Female Fear, The Beauty Myth, The Women’s History of the World) and the experiences of the cast and assistant director Heidi Stillman. Though it does offer a few statistics on wife beating, rape, and the salary gap between men and women, In the Eye of the Beholder keeps its personal feel by concentrating on the ordinary events that reveal larger societal patterns. And while the performance succeeds in stirring serious arguments about the way women are taught to perceive themselves and the way they’re viewed by men, it also reaches a far more elusive goal–creating art.

Using very little dialogue, Eason tells a story of fear and triumph over fear through a cohesive blending of theatrical elements: Michael Lapthorn’s set design, David Kersnar’s lighting, and Eric Huffman’s sound design. Borrowing from the Surrealist Rene Magritte, Lapthorn greets the audience with a stunning uncurtained set consisting of five male mannequins in black bowlers and topcoats with their backs to the audience; these staggered figures face an illuminated backdrop of a blue sky with white clouds. We hear xylophone music before we see actress Tracy Walsh (the characters are known only by the first names of the actors playing them) in an upstage corner. She walks in slow motion toward the mannequin in the opposite corner, now accompanied by a voice-over of a string of words: “infuriating . . . humiliation . . . ” Though it’s dark around her, Tracy walks confidently in a bright but gentle light. As the dark figure in the corner comes to life and walks toward her, Tracy’s posture changes, from swinging arms and raised chin to arms folded across her chest and downcast eyes. We can’t hear the man’s words, but when we see his head turn and his lips move as he passes Tracy, we understand the relevance of the voice-over.

A common occurrence: a man ogles a woman and makes lewd comments. But by slowing down the action Eason invites us to question our tolerance for such verbal assaults. Here, as throughout the play, the playful methods she and her cast have devised–using exaggerated movements and bombarding us with repetitive actions, words, and images–tone down any moralizing in the conclusions about violence against women. In another scene, for example, two giddily fast-talking girls (Joy Gregory and Meredith Zinner) pretend to be princesses over imaginary tea, while in the background we see boys playing a game that involves an invisible football, guns, and swords. Though the message is clear–women are raised to be civil while men are raised to be violent–the images make fun instead of laying blame.

In Eason’s vision, education can be stifling or freeing. In grammar school, Tracy is punched in the arm by the boy who likes her, then must listen to him drone on in class about great men in history as the boy repeats “and he . . . and he . . . and he . . . ” In college, Tracy is finally able to glory in the accomplishments of women in history, reading aloud with her teacher “and she . . . and she . . . and she . . . ” A sort of cheerleader dance reflects Tracy’s initial excited happiness with college life. As if to re-create numerous meetings in dorm hallways and campus centers, the five performers take turns crisscrossing the stage with exaggerated waves and sideways kicks, swinging each other by the elbow and falling backward to be caught in the arms of another performer. Many of Tracy’s movements and words are mirrored by Joy. Going off to college, Tracy swings her suitcase while Joy follows a few feet behind, swinging her empty hand. Later, when a male professor makes unwanted advances, it’s Joy who lifts his hand off Tracy’s shoulder.

The actors play types more than full-fledged characters, but each successfully establishes a consistent presence onstage: Walsh is a young woman searching for her identity; Christine Dunford, a comforting mother; David Schwimmer, a well-intentioned father; Andy White, the flattering, protective boy/man enamored of Tracy; Zinner, Tracy’s funny friend; and Gregory, Tracy’s gutsy inner voice. Individually and in group choreography, the players consistently fascinate with fluid, synchronized movements.

In the Eye of the Beholder shines a spotlight on the belittling experiences common to women, but it’s not a women-only show: it raises issues to be addressed by both sexes, and in a true collaborative effort, does so with pathos, whimsy, and beauty.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Catlin.