In the past two weeks, I have time-traveled, hopped from coast to coast, boosted my language-learning skills, laughed, cried, and everything in between – and it’s all thanks to a group of up-and-coming women writers.
Now in its fourth year, She NYC Arts Festival is dedicated to exclusively showcasing shows by female writers and composers. The plays and musicals featured this year were excellent across the board and gave voice to perspectives seldom explored; there were no stock plots or characters here. The characters (also mostly female) encompassed high school and college-age women, women 100 years our seniors, queer women, women of color, and more. No one play encapsulates the whole of the female experience. Together, however, the various perspectives create a nuanced and diverse portrait of what it means to be a woman, friend, lover, and human, further proving that no one can convey the difficulties and triumphs of womanhood quite like we ladies can.
That’s not to say She NYC and its shows’ messages aren’t accessible to all. The opening night show, Kate Brennan’s The Shoebox, contains such lines as “If I haven’t achieved everything I want to be by the decrepit age of 25, am I a failure?” that can resonate with any young person (for better or for worse). Brennan’s play is set in 2007 and follows four 15-year-old girls who write letters to their 25-year-old selves. It then jumps to 10 years later, when they reunite to open the letters after having experienced rehab, serious relationships, and unfulfilling jobs, respectively. Upon doing so, they must contemplate how their choices have changed themselves and their friendship.
It’s never revealed what is written in the letters, but the inventive way Brennan has structured her play includes alternate scenes that play out in the girls’ minds, of things they wish would happen between them as well as exchanges they fear. Each 15-year-old girl also has her time to soliloquize about the struggles their giggly demeanors mask; later, their older selves act out sensational talk shows and mystic rituals to convey the assumptions and rumors that have built up around them in 10 years. Bullying, eating disorders, popularity, substance abuse, and overall lack of self-esteem are just some of the issues The Shoebox tackles. It’s a brave and honest play, and its dialogue strikes an effective balance between drama and authenticity.
Jen Green and Caroline Wigmore’s The Bachelor Girls is another coming-of-age tale that looks at a very different group of girlfriends, and in doing so, it expresses the history and timelessness of feminism. The year is 1919 in London, and the carnage of wartime has reduced young women’s prospects for marriage. Three friends have just graduated college and must discover themselves in an era of sociopolitical change – Molly dabbles in the fashion and dance of the modern “flapper” lifestyle, Gertie takes up suffrage activism, and Cecily becomes a nanny while searching for a husband with whom to start her own family. Their journey is underscored all the while by the Bachelorettes, three American flappers acting as a sort of Greek chorus who encourage the girls to forge their own paths.
The musical’s message is clear: 1919 and 2019 aren’t so different, it asserts, though it doesn’t need to allude to any modern politician or conflict to do so. The authors present characters grappling with a changing political landscape and the clash between tradition and individuality. The staging also emphasizes the parallels – events like a suffrage rally are reminiscent of the recent Women’s March. At the risk of being reductive, though, The Bachelor Girls is, above all, fun. It’s a charming romp enlivened by original Jazz Age-inspired songs and energetic performances by the ensemble of girls. With their sultry, sassy movement and vocals, the Bachelorettes are especially mesmerizing – including surprise standout Tracy Bidleman as Molly’s Aunt Smythe who, after having lived a traditional and conservative life, exuberantly leads the girl group in a showstopping second-act song from beyond the grave. The hilarious, heartwarming number easily proved the highlight of the show.
Whereas the protagonists of The Bachelor Girls leave college with optimism and plans for their future, the protagonist of Ciara Kay’s Swim Before You Drown gives voice to the equally relatable uncertainty and fear about facing the great big Real World. Harper (Kay) has just graduated with a theatre degree, to the dismay of her Midwestern, Korean family for whom her career choice is one of many disappointments. Her weight, dress, and demeanor are just some of the others that have led up to Harper and her family not speaking. She’s ready to move to New York and start a new life for herself, but as the day moves closer, she second-guesses herself in the face of leaving her family and her best friend Sam (Hunter Mruz) behind.
Kay and Mruz have fantastic chemistry as the best-friend pair. Their easy banter and closeness make Harper’s romantic feelings for Sam all the more predictable. They also make the friendship authentic and intriguing to follow, and in a play in which they’re the only two characters that interact onstage, that quality is crucial to the play’s success. Kay also shines on her own as the theatrical, self-deprecating Harper. Stand-up bits in which Harper discusses her family, her fears, and her friendships are interspersed throughout, and they are some of the most emotionally vulnerable moments of the show. Amidst self-deprecating jokes that thinly mask deep self-esteem issues, she looks into shattered mirrors and parrots criticisms that have been made to her: “Nobody wants a fat actor.” “You’d be so pretty if you just grew your hair out.” “You had so much potential.” All these candid moments lead to the final scene in which Harper and Sam ponder their futures, separately and together, on a swingset at dawn. Their conversation is the final push Harper needs to overcome her doubts, at least well enough to presumably board her plane. Even if you can’t relate to the characters, you can empathize with them as they bring to light the darker side of a bright future.
The festival continued with Immersion/Inmersión by Courtney Bailey Parker, a play not always meant to be fully understood. The American Megan (Parker) attempts to immerse herself in the Spanish language three days ahead of her and her boyfriend Domingo’s (Rodrigo Del Río) trip to his home country of Mexico. The relationship, conducted solely in English until then, is challenged as a result. Megan, in losing language privilege, deals with an unfamiliar feeling of discomfort. Domingo grapples with his native language’s relationship to his identity and whether it’s been compromised for the years he’s sacrificed it for Megan.
This play was perhaps the most brilliantly written in the festival, for how it allows the audience to, well, immerse themselves in either Megan or Domingo’s point of view, or else get the chance to be the outsider depending on their language proficiency. Immersion is written partly each in English and Spanish, and there are pros and cons to every level of understanding. With my fluency in English and partial knowledge of Spanish, I was able to understand Megan’s slow, stumbling Spanish and only sporadic words and phrases of Domingo’s. My lack of understanding, though, allowed the plot twist to shock me at the true climax of the show: when it’s revealed to Megan (in English) that Domingo has a wedding set up for them in Mexico, and his visa has expired, making him unable to reenter the U.S. after the trip if he’s not married. Native Spanish speakers would know the twist when, as I realized later, he discusses it in Spanish with his mother in the first scene.
Kay and Del Río are absolutely endearing as Megan and Domingo, making the couple’s sudden discord all the more poignant. We watch them argue about exoticism, racism, deceit, and the implications of a green-card marriage, hoping against hope that they’ll work it all out and live happily ever after, beginning with a dream wedding in Mexican paradise. And then the play ends with Megan reading from a book Domingo is writing, but not before Domingo’s arresting line: “I’m going to Mexico on Tuesday morning. I hope you will come with me. You think I am the bad guy right now, for tricking you…But you are not innocent.” You don’t know what she decides, and it’s near impossible to guess. The play thus leaves a sense of dissatisfaction, but it’s one that reminds us of what beautiful, yet difficult, things el amor and el privilegio can be.
Rounding out the festival were Jen Rudin’s Beautiful Pasadena (a clever refurbishing of the living-room play in which a marriage begins and ends in the time it takes a bathtub to be delivered), Elinor T and Drew Vanderburg’s Dancing Girl (an adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame), and Kristin Heckler’s Exposed (an unsettling portrait of a girl who pays for college by acting in adult films), all haunting and moving in their own ways. She NYC showcased a bold collection of work this year that encompassed a wide range of stories, struggles, and successes rarely seen or heard in performance. I’d be ecstatic to see any one of these shows on another, hopefully larger, stage sometime soon.