Woman on Verge of Creating the New
CLAUDIA LA ROCCA
November 10, 2009
It would be easy to reduce “The Verge,” Susan Glaspell’s 1921 play, to a feminist tract. Society forces Claire Archer into the boxes it deems acceptable; in attempting to escape those boxes, Claire goes mad. But that summary ignores the work’s wild heart, which, like its fragile, monstrous heroine, is somehow irreducible.
Such irreducibility is the more resonant feminist message today, and it is given full room to breathe by the director Alice Reagan and Performance Lab 115, which is performing “The Verge” as part of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater’s Incubator program for emerging artists.
Ms. Reagan has altered Glaspell’s script, conflating or eliminating several characters, condensing and editing scenes and reimagining the setting, a greenhouse where Claire (Rebecca Lingafelter) is trying to create a new kind of plant, one “that is outside what flowers have been.” The Ontological’s staircase is used to suggest that Claire’s secretive workspace exists above the greenhouse, not below a trapdoor, as Glaspell had it.
“[The Verge] is given full room to breathe by the director Alice Reagan and Performance Lab 115.”
But this room of Claire’s own is, in any case, a hidden one. We see her and her creaturelike assistant, Antoinette (Sara Buffamanti), mostly among men: Claire’s ineffectual husband, Harry (B. Brian Argotsinger); her archly sinister lover, Richard Demming (Tuomas Hiltunen); and Tom Edgeworthy (Todd d’Amour), the man who understands her best and is
therefore the greatest threat to her mad sovereignty.
“I’m fighting for my chance,” she tells him, pulled taut between his offer of love and the plant’s tantalizing promise of the unknown. “I don’t know — which chance.”
She knows that she wants nothing of her daughter (Rachel Jablin) or husband, and the proper, socialized world they represent. The greenhouse is a last stand against this world, isolated in a wintry storm and full of long tracts of dark, rich earth. Everyday objects are half-buried in the soil, as if they might be transformed, or at least neutralized. And by the end, it is clear that Claire has gone beyond the everyday.
Not all of the production’s choices pay off. Video interludes (by Jeff Clarke) of voluptuously flowering plants are heavy-handed, as are the strange, gestural dances performed by Ms. Lingafelter, whose mad eyes, vocal outbursts and habitual rubbing of one forearm more elegantly suggest her trapped, spinning mind.
But the Incubator, like a greenhouse, is meant to nurture possibility. And here it has succeeded, just as Claire, in a way, succeeds herself.
Two for the Time: Reviving Susan Glaspell in New York
Last fall, the writers Julia Jordan, Sarah Schulman and Anna Ziegler called a town hall meeting for female playwrights to discuss the fact that work written by women was being produced at rates no better than 100 years earlier. The news was not a surprise so much as a reminder of the complacency that allowed momentum to falter after the slight gains made in the 1970s and 80s. There has been a great deal of discussion over the past year around the topic of why women’s work (as well as work by minority writers) isn’t being produced more and how to change that reality. One of the more difficult questions in this debate is how, as an artist who has been systematically excluded from mainstream conversations, you can both work to make sure your voice is heard and, perhaps more importantly, continue to use and develop that voice in spite of the realities you face.
Interestingly, these are some of the same struggles that playwright Susan Glaspell faced in the early decades of the 20th century. Lucky for her, and for all of us, Glaspell’s was one of the voices that broke through. Her work was critically lauded in her time, garnering her, among other things, a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1931. She was also a co-founder of the Provincetown Players, a group that helped to redefine American theater. Unlucky for Glaspell, much of her work died with her. Most of her plays and all of her fiction went out of print shortly after her death in 1948, and little attention was paid to her oeuvre until university gender studies programs began to revive her work through the later decades of the 20th century.
“These two companies and directors have long been producing their own work, finding their own way in the shifting theatrical landscape.”
Now, nearly 100 years after their first productions, two of Glaspell’s plays are being produced in New York at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, both directed by women. The first production is The Verge running November 5-21, directed by Alice Reagan for Performance Lab 115, an actor-led company where she’s a resident artist. The second production — of Glaspell’s most famous work, Trifles — runs February 4-20, directed by Brooke O’Harra and co-produced by the Ontological and Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf.
Both plays were written in roughly the same period for the Provincetown Players. Trifles was first performed in 1916 when the group was still working out of the Wharf Theater in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The Verge received its first production in 1921 when the group began producing at their playhouse in New York. More importantly, though, both plays directly address the question of a woman’s presumed role in society and the deliberate defiance of that role by characters in each play. The Verge, as Reagan put in when I spoke to her about the production, concerns, among other things, “a woman caught in a context in which she’s trying to define her life and being thwarted at every step.” Trifles tackles the notion of women exploiting expectations about women’s roles to thwart a murder investigation. What’s also important and interesting about both plays is that at the same time they challenge the roles of women, they also experiment with form. It’s these formal innovations that, according to my conversations with both directors, were the most significant reasons they chose to direct the plays. For Reagan, “the juicy part of why to do the play is that [Glaspell] throws these styles together in an absolutely modern, fragmented way. The Verge is packed full of text with ideas and Freudian psychology. You’ve got melodrama, you’ve got Greek tragedy by the end of the play, you’ve got expressionism, and you’ve got comedy of manners.” I sat in for a section of a rehearsal with Performance Lab 115 and watched as the actors and Reagan played with theatrical styles, looking for ways to allow the play’s conversation about style to inform the simultaneous conversation about the struggles of the characters in the play. It’s a heady trick, but there’s a lot of interesting work being done with it.
For O’Harra, who will begin rehearsals for Trifles later in the year, the play was something she became interested in while constructing a course on feminism and form at Mount Holyoke College, where she is currently a full-time professor. “I was looking at plays that were written by American women, both older plays and contemporary plays, where the form of the play is the essence of the play as opposed to narrative.” Where Reagan has chosen to trim the full-length The Verge, O’Harra is expanding the one act Trifles in order to hone in on the lives, both internal and external, of the play’s four characters. She’s interested in the moments during which the characters empathize with one another despite the psychic gulfs between them. Expanding on this notion, O’Harra described one aspect of the tension in the play that translates well to the contemporary world: “It’s interesting because in the play you feel like even the husband and wife have a strange kind of intimacy. That they keep to themselves within that. Even the two women in the room keep to themselves. Do we keep ourselves isolated? Do we keep away a certain kind of intimacy?”
Both companies have a history of putting on challenging and important work, and it will be exciting to see what they bring out of these too-long neglected works. It’s also interesting to look at these two directors seeking to make work on their own terms. As with the Provincetown Players, who in seeking to redefine the art form were compelled to create a completely new theater outside of New York stages, these two companies and directors have long been producing their own work, finding their own way in the shifting theatrical landscape. And perhaps that’s one of the keys to making sure you can survive as an artist despite the tremendous hurdles for voices that have traditionally been kept off of main stages. As O’Harra noted about Glaspell: “She totally did it her own way. They made their own system. And I’m sure that’s for a reason, because there’s a need for it and the model doesn’t exist. You have to create your own model. It’s not because you’re an anarchist, it’s because you understand what it takes to make the work you’re interested in.”
A Slienced Woman | Download PDF
Susan Glaspell may be the most important playwright whose work you’ve never seen on stage. One of
America’s most influential female dramatists, Glaspell was a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a best-selling novelist and an early supporter of Eugene O’Neill. Nevertheless, almost all her plays went out of print soon after she died, and today they are more often studied than performed. It’s a fitting corrective, then, that the Incubator program at New York’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater should fill its winter season with not one but two of Glaspell’s productions—first a November staging of The Verge by Performance Lab 115, then the Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf’s production of Trifles. The latter show runs through Feb. 14.
Two-Headed Calf, which was founded by director Brooke O’Harra and composer Brendan Connelly and has been in residency at La MaMa E.T.C. for the past eight years, previewed Trifles at the 2009 Prelude Festival at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, City University of New York. The troupe is known for fully integrating live original music in its productions, but Trifles (featuring the musical ensemble Yarn/Wire & Strings) marks a departure in style for Connelly, whose recent compositions for Two-Headed Calf shows have tended to be bold and brash. This is a quiet play, in which the music “rises out of the emptiness” to emphasize the isolation and alienation of the characters. In fact, the production begins with about 12 minutes of silence; that’s almost a third of the total run time. “I know what stillness is,” one of the characters later says, for a moment penetrating the shroud of loneliness that surrounds her.
Glaspell’s plays are sensitive psychological portraits of a society where women’s struggle to connect with each other impedes their ability to achieve equal social footing with men. In Trifles, says O’Harra, the protagonists are “bound together through empathy that they have to keep at bay” during the investigation of a woman for the murder of her husband. Yet the play also calls attention to the gaps in understanding and equality that persist for women today. As O’Harra notes, “We as a culture are responsible for not building on Glaspell’s history.”