THE MISS VAGINA PAGEANT
at the Annoyance Theatre
MANN IST MANN
at Urbus Orbis
Faith and Jill Soloway have been getting national attention this past year as the "creators" of the Annoyance Theatre's Real Live Brady Bunch, in which actual episodes of the early 70s sitcom have been transferred to the stage. I suspect Brady Bunch has succeeded because it works as both love letter and campy satire. Which is to say, the Soloways (and their cast) perfectly re-create on the stage the audience's ambivalent attitude toward television.
The Soloway sisters' newest show, The Miss Vagina Pageant (Faith and Jill Soloway produced and directed) is a similar mix of delight and disgust--with disgust predominating. It's also a surprisingly original and fresh take on the oft-satirized subject of beauty pageants.
It helps that the Soloways offer a distinctly feminist sensibility that shows itself in the way Miss Vagina never stoops to mocking the women involved in the pageant. The five contestants are presented as neither bimbos nor semidivines but as individuals. Thus Beth Cahill gets laughs because her character, Denise Wittke, is such a perfect re-creation of a tough white girl from the southwest side. The most attractive contestants are those who seem truest to themselves. The two most conventionally glamorous women--Camille Roget (Susan Messing) and last year's Miss America, Carol Ann Baker (Madeline Long)--are foolish, dishonest, essentially lost souls.
Miss Vagina is a work of such stinging satire that at times it descends to agitprop. But all concerned are usually more interested in getting laughs than in getting a message across. And Miss Vagina is a very funny show--more in the spirit of Metraform's taboo-challenging late-night hit Coed Prison Sluts (which features songs by Faith Soloway) than in Real Live Brady Bunch's squeaky-clean pokes at television culture.
Adapter/director Elliot Gage would do well to watch a few Metraform shows before he attempts his next Brecht play. Then he might see that adept comic actors are best able to entertain an audience while fulfilling Brecht's desire for a self-conscious theater that keeps the audience aware of the fact that it is watching a performance.
The actors in Gage's production of Brecht's Mann Ist Mann so solemnly approach the task of keeping us from being drawn into the action that Brecht's comic play, which has been described as a Chaplinesque farce, is never very funny nor particularly enlightening. Here Brecht's satirical attack on the malleability of modern citizens--"You can do with a human being what you will. Take him apart like a car, rebuild him bit by bit"--fails miserably either to hit the play's various straw men--overzealous soldiers, greedy shopkeepers, war profiteers--or just to keep our attention. Gage's ploy to make the play more relevant by transposing it from turn-of-the-century India to Guatemala ten years from now also fails.
It doesn't help that the evening begins with an extremely confusing, extraordinarily cerebral curtain raiser, The Baby Bull, adapted from Brecht's The Elephant Calf. Essentially a philosophical dialogue in play form, The Baby Bull attacks the notion that carefully reasoned arguments necessarily lead to valid conclusions. It's hard to care whether Brecht manages to discredit an idea that no one today even believes.
I might have been more interested in Mann Ist Mann had the actors spoken their lines a little more slowly and clearly. Even Anita Loomis as the play's unofficial stage manager, its most likable and understandable character, rushes through her lines as if she had someone to meet after the show.
Elliot Gage must shoulder the responsibility for the way this production fails to coherently relate Mann Ist Mann's very simple story, about a schlemiel named Galy Gay who stands in for an AWOL soldier and slowly takes on his identity. Gage's rendition decays into a series of pointless, seemingly unrelated scenes. The play would have seemed wholly incomprehensible to me--as it did to my companions--had I not known the story beforehand.
Which is a shame, because Gage clearly has his heart and head in the right place. He has peppered the play with pungent quips about Operation Desert Storm ("To end war, seek justice") and about our sad history of interference in Central America. Also, Gage has found, in Loomis and in Yasen Peyankov, two actors capable of delivering the sort of ironic performances that would have pleased Brecht.
Sadly, of the remaining actors in the show three are awful, and a fourth, Matt Yde, though a fine actor, would clearly be more at home in a role demanding the sort of Method acting Brecht rebelled against.