Landmarks/a Mass of Muscle and Bone
at Belle Plaine Studio
By Kelly Kleiman
There's a lot to be said on the subject of women's relationships with their bodies. Yet that thought in itself ought to be ludicrous: how alienated do you have to be to develop a "relationship" with yourself? On the other hand, women's bodies often seem separate, lumpish, and recalcitrant to their owners, like donkeys we ride. Hence it was a big deal in 1971 when a feminist health book asserted that our bodies were ourselves. A landmark, you might say.
Like many women, I've spent years struggling with my weight and body image. I've even spent time in therapy on the subject, as though it were worth $2.50 a minute. It's so unfair: all that energy expended on the topic and not a single calorie worked off.
But my struggle with my weight isn't interesting to anyone but me. What's interesting is our struggle with our weight--the fact that this issue, the lingua franca of every ladies' room, fritters away the energy we could be using to make actual improvements to our lives and the world. So the personal really is political: what women are allowed to weigh, how much room we're entitled to take up, is a topic not just in front of our bedroom mirrors but throughout our culture.
Unfortunately Pyewacket's new play Landmarks/a Mass of Muscle and Bone leaves the personal strictly personal, squandering every opportunity to talk about issues that might matter to anyone but playwright Kate Harris. In the piece, directed by Kerstin Broockmann and Kenneth Lee, Harris and two actresses (Lynne Hall and Deborah King) deliver monologues masquerading as conversation about the life and work of artists' models. They also run through a series of poses for two artists standing at easels at the corners of the stage--as well as for any audience member who accepted the invitation to take a sketch pad on the way in the door. Yet Landmarks fails to say a single interesting thing about the meaning or power of body image, instead spouting cliches of confessional feminism. And the work's occasional comic moments have the flavor of the 1970 movie What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?, purporting to comment on prurience and squeamishness while actually exemplifying it.
Landmarks has no discernible plot, but its setup--40ish Harris returns to modeling after years away and trades stories with 30ish King and 50ish Hall--seems intended to illustrate how the quest for external validation can and should give way to the ability to appreciate and validate oneself. This is indeed a worthy moral, but the show doesn't point it; rather, Landmarks presents a woman drifting through life in continuous search of external validation of her beauty. Face it: people who don't need to be validated externally are unlikely to become artists' models, any more than they are to become actors.
Hall and King wear diaphanous gowns; Harris is naked. This might be a comment on the relative eroticism of partial versus total nudity, but it feels more like Harris's determination that everyone in the audience look at her all the time. She confirms this conjecture by making a focus-stealing cross during one of Hall's few speeches, and again by choosing to remove a briefly donned dress just at the climax of King's.
There are plenty of lost opportunities here. The actresses appear to be no more than mouthpieces for the playwright, rendering Landmarks a sort of Three Faces of Kate. No relationships appear or develop among the women, though they say things like "I remember you, Max, doing thus-and-such." They pose independently and recall independently, interacting only to engage in boring shoptalk: "The pose wasn't marked, you know? And so I couldn't get it right..." The posing itself is banal. The movement might have commented on the script, but instead it's either meaningless or awkwardly mimetic, as when all three put up their dukes to convey that they are woman, hear them roar.
Despite all the talk about how free it makes her feel to pose, Harris gives the impression of being so estranged from her body that even when she's naked it doesn't seem it's happening to her. That sort of dissociation is intriguing, both politically and personally. One can conceive of a production of Landmarks in which that was the point--the central character imagines herself free when she's actually entrapped by other people's gazes, and imagines herself profound when she's actually clueless. But no such commentary is offered here.
Harris touchingly looks back on her earlier experience of modeling, "when I was a little fresher in the world," but her story doesn't have any forward momentum. We never learn why she left modeling, or what made her return to it, or in what way its meaning has changed for her. She tells us that her sister's death made her determined to live her own life freely, but that explanation only highlights the question of why the act of uncovering the body in public is freeing rather than the reverse. (Imagine running down the street to escape an attacker. Doesn't the prospect seem more horrible if you don't have any clothes on?) If the dynamic of disrobing is erotic, explore that--but don't flirt with eroticism and then get shocked when people react sexually. Like true believers who think anyone more religious is a fanatic and anyone less is a heretic, Harris and her fellows describe male artists who respond to them sexually as "being smutty" even as they pride themselves on displaying what one of them elegantly terms "ass and twat."
The decision to offer sketch pads to the audience is a good one: it provides the necessary permission to go ahead and look. But people are listening as well as looking, and all they have to listen to is the kind of self-revelation that seemed daring 25 years ago in A Chorus Line: "My mother used to tell me I was ugly and homely." "Sometimes sex makes me feel lonely." "I guess it goes back to my neurotic childhood." There's also a bit of one-upping on women's issues: "I got my period while I was modeling." "Well, I modeled right after I had an abortion."
Revealingly, Harris describes those sketching her--including audience members--by saying, "They are the mirror." Though some of us imagined that theater artists were in the business of holding a mirror up to audiences, apparently it's the other way around.
Donald Margulies wrote a good play, Sight Unseen, about the way models can influence and collaborate with artists. Landmarks glances at the same terrain but never seems to get its bearings despite its evocative title. How do the marks on our bodies tell us where we are or where we've been?
At the end Harris announces that now she knows she's beautiful. That's not only not the answer--it presupposes the wrong question. What we should ask is how to stop teaching girls that "Am I beautiful?" is the only question worth answering in their lives.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.