Strawdog Theatre Company

The people at Strawdog Theatre Company know the difference between a stage and a soapbox. However much it sounds like a doctoral thesis, Strawdog’s Women’s Roles and Realities–inaugurating the “Crossing Boundaries” off-night series–is simply a welcome excuse to gather some outstanding actresses and women directors. Rotating in repertory on Monday and Tuesday nights, five short pieces share some stage elements: a rudimentary set–two beds, chairs, and a table–and themes that are largely, but not exclusively, female.

The stunner of the series is Amy Fenton’s The Education of Marjory, billed as a work in progress. Short and sweet, this performance piece lasts only half an hour but says volumes with every movement and word. The script, adapted by Fenton from the diaries of an early 19th-century Scottish girl (Naama Potok), paints an impressionistic picture of young Marjory’s growing adoration for her tutor Isabella (Tonray Ho). As the two performers overlap and echo each other’s lines and movements, we witness the young girl’s personality slipping away. With every repetition, Marjory further internalizes her mentor’s simplistic teachings: “Everyone is happy who does good,” and “Nobody can be happy who has guilt on his mind.” Sometimes Marjory twists the lesson: “I wish everyone was as pious as Isabella is. They would soon have husbands.” Education is full of double-edged phrases that describe the wonders and dangers of the mentor/student relationship.

Striking and genteel in matching white linen dresses (by series costume designer Elea Crowther), Ho and Potok move earnestly together. As Ho gently but firmly navigates Potok’s hands and body into simple symbolic poses–opening palms up as if reading a book or closing them in prayer–the choreography describes brainwashing as an all-too-pleasant experience with disastrous results. By the end of the performance, which Fenton also directed, my mind was swimming with thoughts on power, subjugation, and women’s roles in society.

A more traditional piece, Tony Marchant’s one-act Raspberry (directed by Kerstin Broockmann) focuses directly on women’s issues. Eileen, who’s 17 and seeking an abortion, and Chris, who’s undergoing fertility treatments, find themselves unlikely roommates in a London hospital. Over orange pop and grapes, they share their concerns and frustrations the night before their operations. Aiming her wit at herself and then at Eileen, the older, ribald Chris acts as the big sister Eileen needs at this terrifying juncture. The shier, overly sensitive Eileen fills in as Chris’s needy child. Such perfect symbiosis borders on fantasy, but the women’s conversation has an easygoing warmth and humor that makes their friendship plausible.

Dialect coach Caroline Bridgewater ensures that Eileen and Chris, Sara Hampton and Marti Hale, maintain authentic British accents, while Karin Shook’s portrayal of an overly efficient nurse pokes fun at the dialect. She raises her voice shrilly at the end of every sentence, as in “See you la-TER.” All three performances strike a truthful note, blending comedy comfortably with pathos.

Josef Bush’s French Gray, a monologue in which Marie Antoinette shares her final minutes before facing the guillotine, knocked me off my guard. I expected an impassioned speech about dignity and death, and French Gray has its share of tears, curses, and moving moments. But overall the work handles the subject with refreshing irreverence.

In her hay-strewn cell and mud-stained skirt, the queen robbed of a throne cries so hard she starts to laugh hysterically. Frantically she skims over prayers and psalms, searching for relief from her anguish–and from the more immediate agony of lice. With vicious wit, Marie mocks the constitution (“adolescent drivel”) and the revolutionaries who have sentenced her to death. Her memories, especially one in which Marie happily squelches the ambitions of a presumptuous underling, offer satiric pictures of court life that borrow heavily, and quite successfully, from Alexander Pope. As the pampered and petty queen, Joan Quinlan (directed by Maggie Speer) makes strengths out of Marie’s weaknesses, combining childlike hedonism and oxlike stubbornness with an aristocratic sensuality to create an admirable character and an admirable performance.

Focusing on women’s pursuit of beauty, Marne Bariso’s monologue Face Box suffers from too much issue and not enough character. We chuckle at the plastic surgeon’s wife who zealously submits to being her husband’s guinea pig and walking advertisement. We nod in recognition at the tanning-obsessed salon owner. However, Bariso weighs their monologues down with overlong descriptions of chin tucks, scar tissue, and tanning beds (called “coffins”). Without personae of their own, these characters are mere mouthpieces for Bariso’s observations, some funny and astute, some only gross.

Due to a pending New York production, the fifth piece, Valerie Windsor’s Effie’s Burning, was not available for review.

Women’s Roles and Realities isn’t overly demanding emotionally. Even when dramatic tension does build, it’s soon deflated by laughter or the end of the piece–each runs only 30 to 60 minutes. Still, the potpourri of scripts, methods, and talents adds up to my idea of good theater: funny, smart, thought-provoking, and tightly directed, with thorough characterizations and performances.