To begin with, I'm a straight, white, middle-aged male with a full-time job that includes health benefits, so who gives a fuck what I think of Untitled Feminist Show? You shouldn't. I barely do, and am much more interested in other people's ideas about Young Jean Lee's latest creation, which kicks you in the gut while wearing nothing but a smile.
It's a show about gendered bodies and their social context and I can hardly ignore my own. But I'm the only one at The Stranger who saw it last night, so I suppose it's up to me to dip my dong in the inkwell and give it a try.
I stood by the steps outside On the Boards and eavesdropped on people as they left—there had been an extended standing ovation and the performers seemed surprised, then a little abashed as the applause went on and on and on. Some things people said to their theater-mates on their way out: "That was awesome." "Wow... just wow." "I loved it!" My favorite was an older lady who was being helped down the stairs by a middle-aged woman, perhaps her daughter: "Weren't they adorable?"
"Adorable" isn't the word I would have chosen, though the well-loved Lady Rizo is in the cast. (Confidential to Adrian Ryan—she's definitely penis-free.) Untitled Feminist Show is one of the most sweetly subversive things I've seen in a long time.
The five women and one trans person enter the theater from the back, naked and without any noticeable makeup—from a social masking point of view, completely unarmed. They are of various shapes and sizes and various shades of brown and pink.
"Provocative" onstage nudity was done to death sometime around 1995. But, as in her previous shows—Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (about Asian American identity politics) and THE SHIPMENT (ditto for African American identity politics)—Young Jean Lee grabs cliches, wrestles them into submission, then makes them tell jokes.
The performers walk down either side of the audience, making eye contact with each other and occasionally us, breathing with a slow, ritualistic tempo that felt like a quiet invasion—as if they, in their nakedness, are sanctifying and claiming the room as their own and we, the quiet and clothed onlookers, will be at their mercy.
And we are. At times, their bareness and innocence is almost unbearable, as in a story-dance towards the beginning (the show explains itself with 99.5% movement and 0.5% text) where they frolic with parasols, enacting all kinds of archetypal fairy-tale relationships to a merrily baroque score. There are mean girls and nice girls, witches and heroines, conflicts and resolutions, all performed by grown, naked women and one grown, naked trans person.
Untitled keeps its audience in a constant tension of forgetting and re-remembering the performers' nudity, their bodies, which points to a fundamental tension of feminism itself—do you notice the content of ideas or the bodies those ideas are coming from? Which do you notice when? Does it matter when an idea comes from a pink body or a brown body, a round body or a linear body? Positing that question so starkly—and wordlessly—makes it sound almost absurd. Why should it matter? And yet, it does.
In one bit, Lady Rizo (aka Amelia Zirin-Brown) walks alone onto the stage, picks out audience members, winks, and begins making playful sexual gestures for them. It begins with her doing the old fellatio-pantomime move—hand around invisible shaft, tongue in cheek, rolling around. (Irony-gesture noted.) She then progresses to playful pantomime castration, extreme fisting, and other acts that shove the audience into fits of laughter, some of it clearly nervous laughter.
In another bit, Lee stages the inevitable "cat fight" (if you're going to play with cliched cultural images of women, that's gotta be in there) which is actually a blunt, dumb, slow-motion street brawl between two performers while the others stand around and cheering and cringing. Like much of Untitled, it's comedy. But there's nothing cute about it.
The show has dance sequences from a kaleidoscope of eras and styles—at some points literally just jigging flesh, which takes another cliche for a run around the block—but it is ultimately a piece of movement theater.
As Hilton Als pointed out in the New Yorker, "language could potentially tip the work over into ideology instead of the poetics of space—the body as space, and the theatre as a space to examine one’s physicality and mind—that Lee explores with such acuity." Lee's ability to take such politically charged material (feminism) and aesthetically charged delivery (nudity, wordlessness) and use it all so nimbly is a serious achievement.
In the final moments of the show (after a punishingly psychedelic music-video sequence), the five women and one trans person reappear onstage, wearing their clothes, as if to say: "Everything you've seen so far is what prefigures any interaction you and I might have. Nobody, and no encounter with another body, is a tabula rasa."
It points to the obvious but often-forgotten fact that any given conversation with a stranger is already well underway before you even get the chance to say "hello."