Yoo-hoo, theater cognoscenti! Remember Theater of the Absurd, the new strain of writing that--to fall into reviewer's clichés--burst on the scene in the 1950s? That's when playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco began making names for themselves.
Don't look now, but it's back as Theater of the Absurd 21st-Century-style--and even with what some might call a feminist twist.
Some might call it that, but I wouldn't. The qualifying resurgence item is Alice Birch's Revolt, She Said, Revolt Again, which Lileana Blain-Cruz is directing extraordinarily well at the Soho Rep. Brought here from London, where Birch is enjoying a certain amount of attention with this and other plays, it's been charged there with being the work of a crusading feminist.
And indeed Birch has been quoted as saying in perhaps more than one place that "we still need the word feminism." Yet, I maintain it's more than that, since it's clear from the Revolt, She Said, Revolt Again that she's not only interested in liberating women more than they have been liberated--continuing reports on unfair salaries are only one reason--but that coupled with the liberation is the concomitant suppression of men.
Birch, I'll concede, may be making the down-with-men statement as an overstatement in order to press a point. There's an amusing scene where the three women in the production (Molly Bernard, Eboni Booth, Jennifer Ikeda) are having an animated klatch when the only male cast member (Daniel Abeles, listed first in the program solely in line with alphabetical order) pushes through the greenery surrounding their picnic table. At the mere sight of him, the women tell him to scram, and, visibly abashed, he does.
Of course, the absurdist work's title blares Birch's political and societal positioning in no uncertain terms. She further underlines it with the projected titles of the scenes and, eventually, the scenelets into which she divides her work. The many indicators that read like admonitions aimed at contemporary women run along the lines of "Revolutionize the language (invert it)," "Revolutionize the world (do not marry)," "Revolutionize the work (don't do it)" and "Revolutionize the world (don't reproduce)"
(Are you getting the jist here? Could you possibly miss it?)
To illustrate her dicta, Birch fills her sketches with conversations between and among characters only rarely given names. The banter, which is more often contentious than not is mostly marked by seeming non-sequiturs. This is in keeping with a note in the script that goes, "Most importantly, this play should not be well behaved." (Perhaps also in keeping to her mission, Birch doesn't assign the scripts' lines to characters more often than not. She lets spacing guide the cast.)
The intriguing Revolt, She Said, Revolt Again aspect is that no matter how puzzling the exchanges are, only infrequently do they baffle or alienate the spectator. No less than a triumph of Birch's will, the accomplishment is also due to director Blain-Cruz and the actors, all of them young and all of their consummately adroit.
For instance, there's the above-mentioned scene where the three women are at that table. (Incidentally, Birch suggests in the script that her idea of an ideal cast is six; here only four take on the immensely challenging assignments.) At odds with the other segments, the women here are identified as Grandma, Dinah and Agnes and represent three generations. If patrons run into trouble following the expressed thoughts precisely, the underlying message of conflicting generational attitude is clear.
For Birch's final sequence, the actors align four metal chairs facing the audience and begin a rhythmic-arrhythmic oratorio during which they become increasingly loud. As it progresses, male actor Abeles applies lipstick in a gesture that might as well be accompanied by the projected title, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."
Birch has said in an interview that her father--whom she doesn't label "a male oppressor," although she might as well have--once charged her with being "an armchair feminist." The phrase infuriated her, but recollecting it in somewhat regained tranquility, she decided she'd own the "feminist" label and force herself to get out of that figurative armchair. She has, indisputably. Truth is, she's practically shot herself out of it, as if from a cannon. Or is that too phallic an image for her liking?