Who's Really on Top?

Writers and politicians have toyed with the legendary "battle of the sexes" since men and women were first pigeonholed into hunters and gatherers. If, however, one's perspective on gender roles has automatically been predetermined by members of one gender, there's little hope for any semblance of true equality.

Sexual politics is far less about nature versus nurture than institutionalized assumptions about social structure. Whether one sees life from the perspective of medieval Europe's odious droit du seigneur or the contemporary Republican war on women (which has done a spectacular job of revealing how much Republican men don't know about women), if the field of vision is heavily contaminated by a male prerogative, women are getting less than equal treatment.

It's been fascinating to watch President Jimmy Carter as he makes the rounds publicizing his new book (A Call To Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power). The genial Georgian calmly and methodically lays out the facts about what's wrong with our male-dominated society to shocked interviewers and television hosts who never expected to be drawn into a conversation with him about such topics as rape on university campuses, sexual assault in the military or why Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is a thriving gateway for the sexual slave trade in America.

Equally revealing has been how male and female pundits react to news reports which contain a clearly sexist component. Compare, if you will, the "professional tone" of Joan Walsh's article for Salon.com entitled Christie's Creepy Misogyny: Behold His Despicable "Blame Bridget" Strategy with the refreshing bluntness of The Rude Pundit's scathing assessment entitled Christie Internal Review Report: "Bitches Be Crazy."

Two new productions focus on what happens when the status quo (based on assumptions that rest on a foundation of male privilege) is undermined by women who are more intelligent, more complex, more aggressive and better at what they do than certain men in their lives (who imagine themselves to be dealing from a position of power).

  • She Rode Horses Like The Stock Exchange is a contemporary absurdist farce by Amelia Roper which recently received its world premiere from Crowded Fire Theater under the direction of M. Graham Smith.
  • Written by David Ives, the highly-acclaimed Venus In Fur received its San Francisco premiere from American Conservatory Theater in a production directed by Casey Stangl.

Each of these new works is what I like to refer to as an "onion play." Why? Because, as its plot unravels, layer after layer of each character's psyche is peeled away in order for the audience to reach greater depths of understanding about the play's perspective on gender roles.

  • Each script revels in role reversals.
  • In both cases, the writing is strong and highly suggestive.
  • Roper's farce requires a restrained, absurd kind of clowning from its performers.
  • Venus in Fur employs literary history, sadomasochistic eroticism, magical realism and an inside knowledge of the audition process in order to make its points.

What makes these productions particularly interesting to me is that each has been directed by a person whose gender is the opposite of the playwright's. Does that matter? Should it matter? In the eyes of A.C.T.'s artistic director, Carey Perloff:

The director/actor relationship is always a complex one. In trying to sculpt an actor's performance into something matching the vision for the play, the director often resorts to a certain degree of manipulation or muscle. But in the end, the actor is the instrument that matters. The actor will always know more about a role than either the director or even the writer can even know, because that role is in her own body. Venus in Fur is about that vivid embodiment, about the ways in which an actor invites another entity into her skin and relishes the discovery and power of performing that character. It is a totally present-tense play (as all great theater must be) inviting actors to commit with ferocity to a high-stakes game of love and chance.

However, Venus in Fur's director, Casey Stangl, is quick to note that:

As a female director, I'm used to being in rooms full of men. I'm used to dealing with power dynamics. In most cases, it's not blatant. In most cases it's extremely subtle and completely navigable. But I will say, as a woman, you bring a different set of life experiences into the room: what it's like to be discounted, what it's like to have to prove something, the idea that our sexuality and our personal eroticism can be threatening. That's a different perspective than men have -- not better, just different.

The Vanda part is huge. She's got big emotions. She's big, she's loud, she's broad, she's funny, and then becomes very much the opposite of that. She goes to extremes, and extremes are always easier to do than smaller, subtler shifts. Also, the female role is younger. The older the parts go, the shallower the talent pool gets. Theater is a tough business, and the older actors get, the more they drop out. They can't sustain themselves. So young women are the demographic you've got the most of. I think the reason Thomas was harder to cast is because he seems very intellectual and confident, but in fact has a lot of odd little insecurities and vulnerabilities that end up leaking out at different points of the play. His is a subtler journey. One of the things that's so great about the play is how the power dynamic is constantly shifting. You find yourself siding with one person and then you second-guess yourself. You don't know where your allegiances lie.

What happens when a person of one gender creates a work of art that is interpreted by an artist of the opposite gender? Does the interpretation of the piece change? Or does one person's experience with sexual politics (and/or sadomasochism) suggest insights and choices for the actors to consider which may not be clearly outlined in the script?

* * * * * * * * * *

Venus in Fur is written for two actors who take on a variety of personas over the course of the evening. Set in a rented rehearsal room equipped with both fluorescent and incandescent lighting fixtures, with the exception of a period divan the furniture is standard office equipment.


Brenda Meaney and Henry Clarke in Venus in Fur
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Thomas Novachek (Henry Clarke) is a frustrated intellectual who has adapted Venus in Furs (a novel written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch in 1870) for the stage. Unable to find a director who can do justice to his work, Novachek has taken it upon himself to stage his own adaptation.

As the play begins, Thomas is talking to his girlfriend, Stacy, on the phone. He's late for dinner and deeply frustrated after a long day of auditioning "idiot actresses" who have no idea what is required for the role of Wanda von Dunayev. It doesn't take long for the audience to realize that Novachek is a bit of a perfectionist, a bit of a control freak and a bit of a dickhead.


Brenda Meaney and Henry Clarke in Venus in Fur
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Vanda (Brenda Meaney) is a late arrival, bursting into the audition room just as Novachek is getting ready to leave. Although she initially comes across as a bit of a ditz, there is plenty of intellectual heft and street smarts hidden beneath her sexy exterior.

While Vanda freely admits that her dream role is "Hedda Gobbler," she knows how to do her homework and has arrived with several period costumes that she bought at a thrift shop, a full copy of Novachek's complete script (which no one is supposed to have) and a much deeper understanding of sexual role-playing than the academic who is auditioning her. In short, she is the embodiment of the old saying "Beware your fantasy, it might just come true."

As the evening progresses, Thomas and Vanda move back and forth from audition mode (in which they read from his script) to real life (in which the power quickly shifts between the two characters). Having been around the block a few times, Vanda has no trouble picking up on Novachek's latent desire to be groomed for submission.


Henry Clarke and Brenda Meaney in Venus in Fur
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The bottom line is simple: Vanda and Thomas each have something the other desperately wants (whether consciously or subconsciously). The hidden power of a script, a costume, erotic literature, a change in lighting or one's knowledge of how to direct a scene keeps the power dynamic constantly shifting between the two genders.

Under Casey Stangl's direction, Brenda Meaney and Henry Clarke prove to be an impressive pair of consenting antagonists. The playwright's use of magical realism at the end provides a stunning climax for the audience (and probably as well for the -- by then -- tightly-bound Novachek).


Brenda Meaney and Henry Clarke in Venus in Fur
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

* * * * * * * * * *

Working on a deceptively simple yet exquisite unit set designed by Maya Linke, Crowded Fire Theater's world premiere production of She Rode Horses Like The Stock Exchange takes its time finding the proper tone to pierce the anguish that accompanies the fading American dream of home ownership in the 21st century. If one takes into account Matt Taibbi's infamous description of Goldman Sachs as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money," it becomes easier to find the bile-tinged sliver of black comedy in the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. As stated in the show's program notes:

In 2008 the housing market imploded, wiping out approximately $22 trillion of wealth. It has been estimated that over a million Americans lost their homes as a result. During the worst years of the crisis, 465 banks failed. To this day, no top executives of U.S. financial firms have been convicted of criminal wrongdoing relating to the 2008 housing collapse.

At the top of the evening, the audience is introduced to an attractive middle-aged couple who have come to spend their Sunday afternoon in a small park close to a lake in an upscale section of Connecticut.

  • Amy (Zehra Berkman) is a hedge fund manager of keen intellect who, as she reads the newspaper, keeps telling her husband that people are losing their homes. A woman who is noticeably uncomfortable in her body, Amy is meticulous about positioning herself, her clothing, her career and the risk she is willing to take in a field dominated by men. Having managed to survive and thrive against all odds, she is quietly trying to enjoy her new wealth and new home.
  • Henry (George Sellner) is a pediatric nurse who deals with death on a routine basis, finds small pleasures in life's simplest moments and, unlike his wife, is completely comfortable in his own skin. Easily satisfied, he's happy to snack on ice cream or paté.


Zehra Berkman (Amy) and George Sellner (Henry) in
She Rode Horses Like The Stock Exchange (Photo by: Pak Han)

Amy and Henry are eventually joined by another, far more ostentatious couple.

  • Max (Kevin Clarke), until very recently, had been one of Amy's rivals at work. An intensely driven, materialistic macho fool, he sent his wife on a vacation as a way of postponing the news that he not only lost a bank but, as a result of his blustering incompetence, has simultaneously lost his job and the deed to their home. He enters the park carrying a floor lamp which he hopes he can sell to someone.
  • Sara (Marilee Talkington) first appears carrying a bunch of designer label shopping bags that contain crackers, paté and what few belongings she still has. A former champion at conspicuous consumption, she has no idea how to cope with suddenly becoming homeless as a result of a foreclosure.


Marilee Talkington (Sara) and Kevin Clarke (Max) in
She Rode Horses Like The Stock Exchange (Photo by: Pak Han)

As the two couples engage in polite chitchat (that masks all kinds of personal resentment), it becomes apparent that Max was pretty shitty to Amy at work. After his spectacular failure as a hedge fund manager, Amy has cleverly purchased Max and Sara's foreclosed home at a bargain price in a delicious act of revenge.

A great deal of the fun in Roper's play comes from M. Graham Smith's stage direction, with each actor's body language revealing far more than is written in the script. As the playwright explains:

I like plays because two characters can say entirely contradictory things and both be right. Or the truth is somewhere in the air between the actors. Sometimes. And sometimes no one knows what the hell is going on and the play becomes about the struggle to articulate. Simplifying big ideas is something artists can do, need to do, and not because simple means stupid (simple is incredibly difficult). I love small words and the rhythm of words. I'm also interested in how limiting words can be.


George Sellner, Kevin Clarke, Marilee Talkington and Zehra Berkman
in She Rode Horses Like The Stock Exchange (Photo by: Pak Han)

Smith's ensemble works together with a kind of deft/daft precision reminiscent of Jeremy Aluma's monstrously hilarious Four Clowns. Amelia Roper's script, however, has the kind of acid timeliness which can easily make some audiences wonder if this piece has arrived "too soon." As Crowded Fire Theater's artistic director, Marissa Wolf, explains:

With a quick rhythmic cadence, and an unnerving humor that keeps us off balance, Roper's voice springs forth from the shoulders of absurdist writers such as Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee while undercutting (with breathtaking precision and boldness) cultural assumptions around gender and power. For me, this play feels like touching a bruise over and over again. I can't remember how I received the bruise, but the pungent ache every time I touch it makes the world come alive and snap into focus. Capturing the delicious, brutal world in which we live, She Rode Horses Like The Stock Exchange presses tenderly against our personal bruises and dares us to awaken.


Sara (Marilee Talkington) seems lost in Maya Linke's modern forest
in She Rode Horses Like The Stock Exchange (Photo by: Pak Han)

Roper's play can challenge audiences in some moments and leave them laughing hysterically in others. I was particularly impressed by the physical comedy of Kevin Clarke's Max and Marilee Talkington's dazed and confused Sara.

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape