Female Parts/A Room of My Own (And I'll Probably Have to Clean It Myself) | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Female Parts/A Room of My Own (And I'll Probably Have to Clean It Myself)


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at Stage Left Theatre


A Stage of One's Own Theatre Company

You've come a long way, baby. Or so the Virginia Slims ads tell us. But Clarence Thomas is preparing his ascent to the Supreme Court even though he hasn't revealed his position on women's reproductive rights. N.W.A., Ice Cube, and Andrew Dice Clay are raking in millions with their misogynist diatribes. Rush Limbaugh, ranting and raving daily about "feminazis," is one of our country's most popular radio talk-show hosts. The list goes on, but it's too depressing to itemize.

In this age of nouveau sexism, the philosophies behind Dario Fo and Franca Rame's Female Parts and Sharon Sassone's A Room of My Own are particularly appropriate. The feminist monologues in both of these productions decry the role of women in contemporary society. They suggest that, despite the advances of the women's movement, things haven't changed much. The two plays make the same basic assumptions, yet the productions produce wildly different results.

Female Parts, performed late nights at Stage Left by Jennifer Lister in a production directed by Kim Rubinstein, is a brilliant success. Composed of two monologues written by director/actress Franca Rame and her husband, radical playwright Dario Fo, the monologues take us on a hilarious yet devastating journey through the kitchen, the bedroom, the abortion clinic, and the gynecologist's office. (The two monologues, "Waking Up" and "The Same Old Story," can be found in more or less the same form in Rame and Fo's collection of monologues Orgasmo Adulto Escapes From the Zoo.)

On paper, "Waking Up" is not much more than a portrait of a frazzled woman waking up, getting ready for work, and finding out that it's Sunday. The woman is the living picture of a chicken with its head cut off. The lights go up on her in bed. She wakes up screaming, picks up her baby, changes its diaper, tries to dust the child with talcum powder, finds out that it's parmesan cheese, dresses the baby, washes her own face, sprays on deodorant, finds out that it's silver paint, then goes on a mad hunt to find her key, searching for it in the refrigerator, in the box of detergent, and in the container of bicarbonate of soda. Throughout the monologue, she recalls arguments she had with her butthead of a companion, Luigi. It sounds like pretty silly stuff, but the frantic pace of the monologue, its hilarious slapstick comedy, and the pathetic reality of a working-class woman who has nothing to look forward to other than Sundays and sleep make it mesmerizing.

"The Same Old Story" is perhaps more ambitious, and even more successful. The woman in the monologue starts out in bed with her lover, a sweet-talking SOB who promises to pull out, but whoops. She gets pregnant. The monologue continues with a trip to the abortion clinic (a scene that should be mandatory viewing for all potential Supreme Court justices), digresses to a fantasy sequence about what would happen if men could get pregnant, and goes on to a nightmarish portrait of childbirth. It ends with a modern foulmouthed fairy tale whose moral is that women must take control of their own lives and bodies; the monologuist uses a profanity- spewing doll as an alter ego to speak out against all the bullshit she's put up with.

No one is safe from criticism in Female Parts. Doctors, sexist males, so-called sensitive males, religious figures, and multinational corporations are all given the finger. In just over an hour, our patriarchal society is slammed mercilessly to the ground. The audience, after taking time to recover from one of Rame and Fo's elaborate dick jokes, is forced to do some serious thinking about our society, which still routinely exploits women in the workplace, the bedroom, and the kitchen.

None of this would be of much value without a superb production, however. And this production delivers. Lister's performance is pretty close to flawless. She uses unbelievable reservoirs of energy, wonderful facial expressions, excellent vocal variation, and a pair of incredibly expressive eyes to excellent comedic effect.

This production uses only a single platform in the middle of the playing area, and a square cut into the wall to represent a bathroom; but we never forget for a moment where we are or who is speaking to us. Even if you walk in tired on a Friday night at 11, you'll be awake and exhilarated by midnight, and probably quoting a lot of lines. And you'll probably be thinking about how humor is an incredibly effective weapon in social commentary.

Pedantry is far less effective. A Room of My Own, by Sharon Sassone, is based in part on Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. It's being performed at A Stage of One's Own, and I witnessed it from an uncomfortable Seat of My Own. It tells the sad story of a woman who at times in her life has been the victim of incest and other forms of sexual abuse, and who now wants to become a writer. Whenever she sits down to read Woolf's lectures about the Sisyphean challenges faced by women writers and women in general, she realizes that she has to clean her kitchen. But on the particular day when we meet her, she decides she's going to leave the mess in the kitchen alone and actually take the time to read Woolf's book. And when she does, she's greeted first by the spirit of Woolf herself and then by the spirit of William Shakespeare's brilliant kid sister, Judith.

Sassone takes as inspiration Woolf's contention that if Shakespeare had had a sister as brilliant as he, she would have led a miserable life, beaten by her father, abused by other men, and eventually taking her own life. In her script, Sassone uses a great deal from Woolf's A Room of One's Own and some of Judith Shakespeare's brother's works.

Sassone's aim is interesting. By gathering onstage a contemporary working-class woman, Virginia Woolf, and Judith Shakespeare, she draws parallels between the situations of women in three different periods and social settings. She explores the similarities of their plights, and even though she offers the opportunity for a happy ending, the picture she paints of women's position in society is a grim one.

It's difficult to criticize this production, directed by Georgia Shankel. It's being presented in a basic storefront theater in Wicker Park and has all the earmarks of an earnest, honest effort. The audience sits on metal chairs with pretty little cushions. The simple lighting system, operated from a card table, and the audience of friends and acquaintances made the experience seem a lot like watching a play in somebody's living room. Criticizing it seems kind of like going over to my Uncle Norm and Aunt Roz's for dinner and complaining about the vegetable casserole.

But regrettably A Room of My Own is a flimsy play, an amorphous interweaving of the monologues of three women whose interactions seem forced, completely unnatural. The contemporary woman in Sassone's script does not seem to be a real human being; she's more like a list of problems in search of a character. As Woolf's sounding board, she's forced to nod a lot and say "You're right" and "I never thought of it that way."

For the most part, A Room of My Own looks more like a lecture than a play. It doesn't treat us with respect; we're told what to think in a very simplistic manner. Tried-and-true "revelations," such as that women haven't been able to do anything with babies in their arms, are offered with the implication that this is the first time we've heard them. Much of the play belongs on a T-shirt, such as Woolf's aphoristic declaration to women writers: "Men and women are different; you must bring out and fortify the difference." The Young Woman shouts "Women have been treated like shit for centuries!" True, but the language is not exactly Shakespearean or Woolfean.

The play is also in need of an editor. It runs over two hours without intermission, and as the time approached ten, I wasn't thinking about the play but about what I wanted for dinner.

The performances are pretty good, however. Kimb Shiver gives a complicated, multilayered performance as the contemporary young woman. She achieves three-dimensionality in a role that seems written for two. Jodi Kanter is charismatic as Judith Shakespeare, part Ophelia, part Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, part Hamlet. Kanter only wears out her welcome when her monologues become unbearably long. And Sassone herself as Virginia Woolf has some excellent moments, though her depiction of Woolf as a sort of fairy godmother becomes grating as time goes on.

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