A few weeks ago I wrote an Advocate column about the scarcity of women playwrights and directors on area stages – four and eight, respectively, out of 35 productions last summer, a gender imbalance that parallels the national stats. And I might have added to that shameful sum the lack of strong, independent women characters in new plays.
So imagine my surprise when last week, as if to reassure that all is not lost, I beheld two shows written by women, both putting female characters front and center stage – one a big, brash Broadway fantasy, the other an uncomfortably intimate slice of real-life current events.
I hadn’t seen Wicked, the blockbuster musical still playing in New York after 11 years, before its road company landed at the Bushnell in Hartford for a two-week stand (through November 23rd), and didn’t know very much about it. I knew it was an alternative take on The Wizard of Oz, purporting to relate “the untold story of the witches of Oz,” but I had no idea how political it is – as most of us have no idea how subtly radical L. Frank Baum’s 1900 original Wizard was – nor how subversive it is – turning most of those iconic MGM characters into their opposites – nor how feminist it is.
For the record, if you’re a fellow Wicked virgin, in this one good witch Glinda is a ditzy, spoiled rich girl, perky, “pop-u-ler,” and of course blonde, while the green witch, named Elphaba (who knew?) is a moody but spirited victim of color prejudice (no, the score doesn’t include “It’s Not Easy Being Green”) who’s got a righteous sense of injustice.
The Wizard himself is a Machiavellian despot, and there’s also a prince, at first vacuously charming but ultimately valiant, a love-sick Munchkin and a girl in a wheelchair who gets a pair of ruby slippers. But most everyone in the piece is fairly peripheral to the central duo: unlikely sisters-in-arms who meet in a kind of Edwardian Hogwarts and whose paths merge, diverge and collide as Glinda becomes the pretty face of the ugly regime and Elphaba goes outlaw on behalf of the realm’s oppressed animals.
It’s a fantasy and a parable, with overtones of both Nazi anti-Semitism and PETA. There’s a teacher at the school who is literally a scape-goat, and a lion cub so traumatized by cruel experiments that he becomes, yes, cowardly.
And oh yes, there are songs. Wicked is a full-blooded, full-throated musical that fills the auditorium with an exuberant score and the stage with some two dozen athletic dancers, dressed in a colorful array of costumes (by Susan Hilferty) that at first are fancifully Gilded Age and, when the action shifts to the clockwork Emerald City, simply fanciful.
Not having seen the original production, I can’t compare to the Broadway leads, but for me, Hartford’s two stars are just dandy. Laurel Harris brings a feisty energy even to Elphaba’s sad and sour moments, and when she caps the first act with the show’s anthem, “Defying Gravity” (which includes the coolest lighting effect I’ve ever seen), she really does take off. But it’s Kara Lindsay’s deliciously self-satirical turn as Glinda that steals the show for me. Kewpie-cute and perfectly self-absorbed, she channels Paris Hilton and Sarah Palin simultaneously.
I found Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics apt and clever, and his music dramatically effective but derivative. For me, most of the show’s brains, heart and courage are found in Winnie Holzman’s smart, shrewd adaptation of Gregory Maguire’s novel. She was behind the adventurous TV series My So-Called Life, which likewise portrayed teen angst and ambition from a female perspective, and her touch is evident in Wicked’s feminist slant, its candy-wrapped critique of racism, fascism and class oppression, and no doubt the program’s two-page spread honoring women of color in our history who have “defied gravity” to oppose injustice.
ABOVE THE FOLD
It might seem to us in the comfortable North that a place like Darfur is as unreal and far away as Oz, somewhere over the rainbow that has nothing in common with our own Technicolor existence. But Darfur, that unhappy region of western Sudan, is all too real, and WAM Theatre’s current production, playing through this weekend as a guest presentation at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, brings it uncomfortably but galvanizingly close.
Winter Miller’s In Darfur is based on her experience visiting a camp for displaced persons as a researcher for New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof – which makes this production particularly apt, since Kristof’s book Half the Sky was WAM’s founding inspiration. In this brief, scalding play, fiction flirts tantalizingly with fact, and while it’s no earnest docudrama, you can be sure the fictionalized names and invented characters stand in for real people in agonizingly real situations.
Darfur has been wracked with war for over ten years, since the central Sudanese government’s ongoing oppression of non-Arab Darfuris finally stirred an armed rebellion. The resistance was met by genocidal reprisals, resulting in an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and, for the most part, hand-wringing and inaction by governments outside the region.
In Darfur tells, in a capsule, the story of how the outside world’s indifference began to change. It takes place in 2004, at the height of atrocities by the government-backed Janjaweed militia, and focuses on three people at the epicenter of the crisis. Maryke (Tricia Alexandro) is a Times reporter who wants to get the story of the rape of Darfur (not a figure of speech for its women and girls) onto the paper’s front page, “above the fold,” to spur her complacent country to action.
Told by her Stateside editor (Christina Gordon) – ironically, a black woman – that it’s “not a big enough story yet,” Maryke travels to a refugee camp where a western doctor (Rich Lounello) is treating survivors of of the Janjaweed pillage. One of these is Hawa (Sipiwe Moyo), who has seen her “entire family tree chopped down” and has found her way to the camp after being gang-raped and then beaten for “adultery.” An educated woman, an English teacher before her country descended into “hell on earth,” Hawa becomes the human-interest face of the headline story that eventually appears – once again putting her life in danger.
Kristen van Ginhoven’s unflinchingly brave and spirited production is performed in a small, bare studio space that puts the audience literally at the feet of the action. The makeshift seating is a little uncomfortable, but I think that’s part of the point. The equally ad hoc lighting by Natalie Robin includes portable worksite lamps that throw stark shadows on the walls, which also capture thematic and photographic images, including the tarp-sided field clinic reflected in Juliana von Haubrich’s setting.
A key part of WAM’s mission is to foreground the work of women artists and to tangibly support organizations that work to better the lives of women and girls. This production achieves the latter by donating a quarter of the box office to a South African orphanage, and the former by – well, just look at the program credits: In addition to the playwright, director and a majority of the cast, three out of four of the design team and two-thirds of the crew are women.
The seven-member cast is, in a word, astonishing – most of them New York-based (it’s hard to find actors of color in the Berkshires) and all of them fiercely connected to their roles and, clearly, to the project as a whole. In this remarkable ensemble, it’s unfair to pick out one performer. But it’s Moyo’s embodiment of Hawa – a modern Hecuba, broken but unyielding, standing majestic on the ashes of her homeland – that will sear your heart and follow you home.
In Darfur is undeniably disturbing, filled with heartbreaking calamity and horrifying moments of violence. But its headlong 90 minutes are spiced with humor – sanity’s safety net when living in hell – and redeemed by the inspiring example of its characters’ stories and their, alright, brains, heart and courage.
Enrico Spada photo
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