Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Personal Perils of Living Under A Patriarchy

Q.  What do honey bees, killer whales, spotted hyenas, bonobos, elephants, meerkats, lions, and ants have in common?
A.  They all live in matriarchal societies.

Q.  What do Saddam Hussein, Wayne LaPierre, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, Rudy Giuliani, Joseph Goebbels, Eric Schneiderman, Pol Pot, Oliver North, Rodrigo Duterte, Stephen Miller, Adolf Hitler, Harvey Weinstein, Benito Mussolini, Blake Farenthold, Joseph Stalin, and straight incels have in common?
A. They are all symbols of toxic masculinity.

“Sometimes, when I'm asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court, I say 'When there are nine.' People are shocked. But there have been nine men and nobody's ever raised a question about that,” notes Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

While there is no doubt that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," with the 2018 midterm elections fast approaching, more and more people are asking how they can become the change they desire.
When most people think of matriarchal societies, they tend to focus on:
Poster art from 1958's Attack of the 50-Foot Woman

Despite a history of female heads of state (such as Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Isabel Peron, Julia Gillard, Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Dilma Rousseff, and Corazon Aquino), many voters gravitate toward male leaders who demonstrate strong tendencies for corruption and cruelty. Two recent productions showed Bay area audiences what can happen when women take the law into their own hands. One is a fictional farce based on a classic Greek comedy that is more than 2,400 years old. The other is a contemporary piece inspired by one woman's personal experiences with the law.

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One of the first things audience members notice as they enter Peet's Theatre to attend a performance of Heidi Schreck's new play is a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution of the United States of America on their seat. The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently presenting the West Coast premiere of What The Constitution Means To Me. Those dreading some kind of stuffy classroom lecture should put such thoughts aside and fasten their seatbelts. As directed by Oliver Butler, this one-act play delivers some extremely poignant revelations about how the Constitution can be used to protect women's rights.

Working on Rachel Hauck's stark unit set (with lighting by Jennifer Schriever, sound by Sinan Refik Zafar, and costumes designed by Michael Krass), the Obie Award-winning playwright (who charmed audiences at Shotgun Players several seasons ago with Grand Concourse) has quite a tale to tell. Back when she was attending high school in Wenatchee, Washington, Schreck earned enough money to pay for her college tuition by delivering speeches about the Constitution in American Legion halls throughout the nation.

Heidi Schreck in a scene from
What The Constitution Means to Me (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

“Since I was 15, I’ve been fascinated by how one tiny little sentence in a 250-year-old document could affect my life so profoundly. There’s a way in which that sentence was the difference in me being here and not being here. I find that putting my own physical body in relationship to this document is a profound, interesting, and strange experience," explains Schreck. "For me, the most interesting part of working on this show is the examination of how the Constitution actually impacts me on an extreme, personal level. Telling the audience this story is a way for me to understand something (Constitutional law) that’s really hard to understand. I finally figured out the interplay of the Constitution and domestic violence as the result of many questions I sent to a lawyer.”

Unlike many monologues in which a performer switches back and forth between various characters, Schreck (one of the first women in multiple generations of her family to live in a home free from domestic violence) traces her lineage from a great grandmother who was a mail-order bride to herself while explaining the curious, misunderstood, and often overlooked role the Ninth Amendment has played in protecting the rights of women in America.

Danny Wolohan and Heidi Schreck in a scene from
What The Constitution Means to Me (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

In describing the four structural points to her presentation, Schreck notes that “The first three are essentially about my past. The fourth thing is about now. It goes great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, me. Within that framework, I tell about my grandma." However, in order to provide herself with someone who can ground her onstage, Danny Wolohan appears as an American Legion member who is enforcing the rules of debate. About two-thirds of the way through the show, Schreck is joined onstage by a local teenager in a debate format which tests their debating skills as well as their knowledge of the Constitution.

"When we were casting the show (both in Berkeley and New York), the most important thing we were looking for was somebody with a ferocious mind who was an actual debater: someone who does debate, knows how it works, and would be able to debate spontaneously onstage. Surprisingly, there are a lot of amazing young women who can do that," she states while adding that "It’s very popular right now to say ‘I’m not actually going to agree to debate the topic we agreed to debate.’ The argument is to say ‘Your rules are bogus and the structure is excluding me.’ A lot of students of color are doing this right now and I think it’s really inspiring. It’s young people saying ‘Actually, we don’t want to play by the rules anymore. We need to make new ones.’”

On opening night, Schreck's formidable challenger was Anaya Matthews, a 10th-grader at St. Mary's College High School who, as an aspiring playwright, is also a member of Berkeley Rep's Young Writers of Color Collective. As she excitedly introduced herself to the audience, Matthews added that, in addition to being fluent in French, she has performed with the Oakland Youth Chorus Chamber Singers, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, the Oakland Art and Soul Festival, and been a young artist in residence at Children's Fairyland. This young woman is far from shy and comes to a debate loaded for bear.

Anaya Matthews in a scene from
What The Constitution Means to Me (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

While Schreck's new play brings a refreshingly personal touch to discussions of Constitutional law, it also removes the veil of secrecy from the days when only men sat on the Supreme Court. By playing a tape of several male justices struggling to discuss a case involving women's rights in the workplace, she demonstrates -- in a way that cannot be forgotten -- just how clueless some men can be.

Performances of What The Constitution Means to Me continue through June 17 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:
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The EXIT Theatre is currently presenting a new adaptation by Stuart Bousel of a political satire written by Aristophanes in 391 BCE. The plot of Congresswomen is fairly simple. Tired of having their needs ignored by the men who make the law in Ancient Greece, the women of Athens (led by Praxagora) plot a bloodless political coup. Seizing power turns out to be much easier than they anticipated. By wearing fake beards, dressing like men, letting the hair grow in their armpits and on their legs, the women are easily mistaken for handsome young men who might be shoemakers.

After entering the Assembly (where no male Athenian could even imagine a woman daring to set foot), the women achieve an easy majority vote. As the plot summary on Wikipedia indicates:
"Praxagora practices a speech decrying the corrupt leaders of the city as selfish and unpatriotic through their acts of war and personal enrichment through public funds. She proposes that the men turn control of the government over to the women because 'after all, we employ them as stewards and treasurers in our own households.' She further explains that women are superior to men because they are harder workers, devoted to tradition, and do not bother with useless innovations. As mothers, they will better protect the soldiers and feed them extra rations. As shrewd negotiators, they will secure more funds for the city."
The women of Athens don beards to vote themselves into power
in a scene from Congresswomen (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Men of the Assembly who have been tricked by the women's disguises soon discover that some of the new rules the women have enacted have a surprising impact on their daily lives. Praxagora's new government demands a new standard of living which applies to every citizen (including equal pay for men and women) and bans all private ownership of wealth. She explains that, with all of life's basic needs being covered by a common fund, there is no longer an incentive for anyone to amass personal wealth. In the true spirit of communal living, prostitutes will no longer have paying clients, the walls that create separate rooms within a house will be torn down, and men and women will be allowed to sleep with whomever they choose (so long as they commit to first sharing their bodies with the uglier members of the opposite sex).

After voting themselves into power, the women of Athens have
a few surprises for Chremes (Kyle McReddie) in a scene from
Congresswomen (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Praxagora's social engineering has a surprising impact on male privilege. Selfish men who thought they were entitled to anything (and everything) quickly learn that, without donating their belongings to the common good, they are not entitled to any of the food or wine for which the common fund provides. When a young man and woman develop the hots for each other, the man is shocked to find himself besieged by older women arguing over who will be the first to have sex with him. As Bousel explains::
“No one’s identity, gender or otherwise, is a promise that they will not mishandle power because power, by its very nature, changes one’s identity. While we cannot with certainty ever know how an individual or group will act once placed in a position of power, that there is an anxiety around any change in who runs the world is, to me, understandable. Generally, people in power, regardless of how they identify, don’t have the best track record, even if certain individuals and examples show that good leadership and government do and have existed. To read Congresswomen as a cautionary tale about putting women in power is to shortchange it enormously, in my opinion, especially as Aristophanes hardly thinks the men in the story have been doing a good job. Incompetent, selfish, insecure, weak-willed, uncharitable, and arrogant, the men have brought Athens to the brink of war, famine, and civil strife. If Praxagora and her friends don’t necessarily make it better, they certainly don’t take it anywhere it wasn’t already going.”
Nicole Odell (Praxagora) plots a political coup in
Congresswomen (Photo by: Jay Yamada)
“Praxagora epitomizes my complex relationship with the play, for while she is well-spoken and resourceful, she’s also ruthless and short-sighted. Her idealism is not always cognizant of the realities of human behavior, especially in regard to desire versus need. Societies may change who is on top, but they still have the same flaws, including (but not limited to) the reliance on the exploitation of a designated underclass in order to continue functioning. If Athens sinks deeper into the mire under the reign of the women, it has less to do with them being women, and more to do with the population of the city being human, and humans being selfish, paranoid, vain, violent, retaliatory, and unreasonable.”
Elliot Lieberman (Lychus) and Lauren Andrei Garcia (Hymenia)
in a scene from Congresswomen (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

There is no denying the timeliness of Bousel's decision to update the play's original script. Although Aristophanes (who also wrote Lysistrata and The Frogs) is credited with creating the first truly gross scatological joke for the theatre in Congresswomen, his play also contains the longest word ever written in Greek ("λοπαδο­τεμαχο­σελαχο­γαλεο­κρανιο­λειψανο­δριμυπο­τριμματο­σιλφιο­καραβομελιτο­κατα­κεχυμενο­κιχλεπικοσσυφοφαττο­περιστεραλεκτρυονοπτο­κεφαλλιο­κιγκλοπελειο­λαγῳοσιραιο­βαφητραγανο­πτερύγων").

In his 2002 collection of Greek plays entitled "Aristophanes: Frogs. Assemblywomen. Wealth," Jeffrey Henderson translated this 171-letter word to mean "limpets and salt fish and shark steak and dogfish and mullets and odd fish with savory pickle sauce and thrushes with blackbirds and various pigeons and roosters and pan-roasted wagtails and larks and nice chunks of hare marinated in mulled wine and all of it drizzled with honey and silphium and vinegar, oil and spices galore."

Unfortunately, the performance of Congresswomen that I attended was delayed for more than a half hour while the San Francisco Fire Department investigated a situation in the building next door to the EXIT Theatre. That night was also a living hell for many, like myself, who have been struggling with a tough allergy season. However, I did enjoy the performances by Nicole Odell as Praxagora, Steven Westdahl as her husband Blepyrus, Lauren Andrei Garcia as Hymenia, Elliot Lieberman as Lychus, and Kyle McReddie as Chremes. As members of the female chorus who were suddenly granted a new lease on their sexual lives, Sostrate (Brittany Nicole Sims), Clinarete (Alexia Staniotes, and Rhodippe (Amanda J. Lee) had a rollicking good time chasing after men who would normally have ignored them.

After voting themselves into power, the women of Athens have
a few surprises for Chremes (Kyle McReddie) in a scene from
The Congresswomen (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Performances of Congresswomen continue through May 26 at the EXIT Theatre (click here for tickets).

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