Whether you’re a man or a woman, or something fabulous outside of the restrictive gender binary, chances are that in your day to day life you’ve done something that equates to the opposite of your gender’s stereotype. The beauty of gender can no longer be a black and white event with just two shallow categories of male and female to define its existence. It is a Technicolor swirl of many vibrant things that bend the notion of normal and can make people quite uncomfortable as they try to assess whether or not these fabulous colorful options fit more into column A or column B of the previously traditional two-category system. Glass Mind Theatre explores these notions in The All-American Genderfuck Cabaret this spring. Written by Mariah MacCarthy and Directed by Susan Stroupe, this curious and queer assignation of gender roles, gender identities and gender energies— herein referred to as gendergies— will broaden your intellectual and emotional understanding of the human identity as you know it.
Taking creative license to use the full gallery space rather than restrict the performers to a more traditional proscenium style stage, Director Susan Stroupe, serving as the show’s Set Designer, carves out a series of niches across the space and weaves them amid the seating of the audience for a fully submerged experience. Having an intensely emotional scene play out in the middle of the aisle between the two banks of seating brings a heightened sense of the experience right into the audiences’ laps. Stroupe relies on props of various size to indicate location rather than cumbersome set pieces. This allows the audience to suspend their disbelief long enough to buy into the story woven by the characters without being distracted by immense spectacle.
Sound Designer Andrew Porter brings a great deal of creative imagination to the play with his inventive use of obscure cover artists. Popular songs like “Call Me Maybe” as covered by Postmodern Jukebox are heard and create a disorienting, albeit intriguing, aural experience. Hearing the familiar distorted into something new and unique reflects the symbolism of the show’s overarching theme. Porter’s sound effects create a jarring cadence to the piece as well. Assisting the narrative entity Taylor with freeze-frame moments, Porter’s sound effects crash into the reality of the production’s atmosphere and startle the audience to attention just as they become engrossed with a scene.
With the word cabaret in the title it would hardly seem a fulfilling production without a bit of dancing. Stroupe, as the show’s Choreographer, provides a sprinkling of amusement through crisp and sharply focused dancing. Stroupe creates an epic dance routine that builds into the Act I Finale; a collage of 90’s dance moves that proves no matter who is who or what is what everyone can enjoy their bodies and cut loose to the very freeing sounds and rhythms of the Macarena. Dream sequences are also accented with hints of Stroupe’s work, particularly the imaginary moment used to explain Kate’s understanding of Taylor.
Director Susan Stroupe has created a living pulsating entity that explores the way gendergies are portrayed casting a series of men and women in varying stereotypical roles. The production’s only true issue is its pacing, which over the course of the run will tighten with practice. Pauses between scenes linger a bit too long and the overall rhythm of dialogue heavy moments are crying out for a motivational pace to keep the show on track. The second half of the show does move more swiftly than the first, a build in momentum gained from the epic dance-party that barrels them into the intermission.
Stroupe’s use of the space is a display of creative genius; a creation of theatre outside the traditional notions of performance which again reflects the overarching theme of breaking stereotypical normality. Moving actors throughout the space as they play out these scenes and using the bar in the corner as an active part of the set are just a few ways in which Stroupe envelopes the audience in the atmosphere of the show.
Playwright Mariah MacCarthy has set out to explore gender and focused lenses of social acceptance, personal growth, and emotional fortitude around the adventurous experience. Her meandering narrative that borders at times on the absurd creates distorted pictures that capture the essence of gender confusion. Closely examining relationships— from sexual to sensual, friendships, to general interactions among gender groups and everything in-between— MacCarthy’s work lives up to its title in a truly twisted and yet strikingly beautiful fashion. Her creation of Taylor— an androgynous character that cannot easily be defined as male or female— is a catalyst for the entire work and the microcosms of exploration that happen therein. The construct of Taylor serves not only as a character in the production that experiences its own struggles and encounters when it comes to human beings, but Taylor also serves as the unifying thread that links the varying storylines together through narration. Serving as the show’s tour-guide, Taylor leads the audience on this warped and wonderful journey through gender and serves as a reminder that things aren’t always as simple as male or female.
Playing Taylor is Baltimore-based performer M. Hicks. When first introduced to the audience, Hicks’ initial monologue is delivered with an unsettling, almost disturbing intensity. As the concept of ‘Genderfuck’ is explained to the audience, Hicks makes evocative eye contact and targets various audience members to ensure that the point of the evening’s show is driven home. Hicks is an exceptional performer, keeping the perpetually undefined gender of Taylor in the air; the minds of the audience continually turning over whether or not Taylor— or even Hicks— is a male or a female. There is an honest vulnerability to Hicks’ performance, the truly confused confessions of trying to pick a limited gender with which to identify really striking emotional chord throughout the production.
While the character of Taylor may not have a conventional gender assignment, the remaining eight performers are broken down into two groups: the men— consisting of a masculine man, a feminine man, a promiscuous man, and a gay man— and the women— a masculine woman, a feminine woman, a promiscuous woman, and a gay woman. At first glance some of these labels may seem blatant and overt but upon closer examination, aided by Taylor’s quirky and comic narrative pauses to introduce these characters, it becomes clear that there are blurred lines everywhere you look.
Kate (Jessica Ruth Baker) is labeled as a gay woman and fits every stereotype, be it positive or negative, assigned to the label. Baker’s performance is one of the most verbally intense in the production as she spends a great deal of time shouting. Whether it is as the leader of Pussies of America— a group that is attempting to subvert the notion of the word ‘pussy’ meaning coward— or as the woman who is confounded by her own feelings toward Technicolor Taylor. Baker accesses a raw vulnerability in her character late in the show, transforming her harsh exterior and exposing her own insecurities; a phenomenon everyone can relate to even if her specific fears and uncertainties are not that of everyone watching.
Baker is a part of two of the most beautiful moments in the production, one of which would spoil the ending if we gave it away, but the other of which is created during an interaction between her character and Dick (Jarrett Ervin) a masculine man. The simplicity of Baker and Ervin’s interaction in the second half of the show creates a moment of acceptance and understanding, proving that with a little effort we can overcome gender stereotypes. Ervin’s portrayal of the ‘masculine man’ is embodied mostly in the way he speaks, using words to hide his own gender-based insecurities.
The opposite of masculine is feminine and in this case the feminine man is Benji (Sam Hayder.) Falling into habitual mannerisms that would often stereotype the character as gay, Hayder embraces the struggle of his character’s sexuality— a man that loves and is attracted to women while being extremely feminine. His performance creates a fascinating approach to defying the stereotype of this gendergy as his sexual and sensual interests are all addressed to women while his body language speaks to the stereotype of a gay male. It’s his nurturing interactions with Allegra (Sarah Lloyd) the ‘feminine woman’ that create a layer of empathy from the audience for his character.
Lloyd’s performance is actually the most gender neutral in the production, outside of the very obvious neutrality of Taylor. Lloyd relies solely on her soft feminine looks to create the stereotype of her character’s label. Her gait, gestures, even the manner in which she speaks are not overly effeminate, which begs the deliciously intriguing question of why is a woman feminine simply for existing when all of the effeminate traits that would make a man appear ‘feminine’ are lacking from her repertoire?
There comes a point where gender finds its definition in sexuality as well. Promiscuous woman Gwen (Siobhan Beckett) and promiscuous man Adrian (Vince Constantino) allow the overt sexuality of their characters to make them specifically male or female. Beckett’s existence of a female is not defined by her promiscuity but rather her promiscuity defines her existence as a woman. A powerful and mind-blowing scene of gender-role reversals is executed between Beckett and Ervin not long after intermission and the light in which her character is portrayed in this repetitious role-switched scene is striking in both a fascinating and disgusting manner. Beckett exudes sexuality from the way she talks to the sassy way she saunters; relying mainly on her physicality to delineate her relationships.
Constantino’s masculinity is paralleled by that of Devon’s (Sarah Weissman) a ‘masculine woman.’ When comparing their performances it is compelling to discover that his version of masculinity as it relates to him being a male seems diminutive against her version, but again this begs the question of why what is ‘natural’ to one is excessive in the other. Both Constantino and Weissman do an exceptional job of adapting the physicality of masculinity, displayed through their brute strength, core energy that radiates through their muscles for recognition, and in their lower-pitched voices.
Back tracking, as this story does frequently, to the promiscuous woman character of Gwen; the relationship that defines her performance the most is her interaction with DJ (Alexander Scally) the gay male hairdresser. Their witty banter is iconic and stereotypically representative of “a girl and her gay BFF.” The dynamic that is created in their interactions speaks volumes about how society perceives these sorts of relationships. Scally’s performance is engaging, especially when he lets his anger— an issue that people of all genders struggle with— overrule his rational mind.
Draw your own conclusions of how gender is meant to be; even if the storyline isn’t for you, or doesn’t end the way you think it might, this production is a provocative and intriguing new piece of work that explores gender in a notion that is still unfamiliar to the masses. Defy the stereotypes or recognize them for what they are and join in the Genderfuck. Chances are you’ve committed a Genderfuck at some point today, whether you’re a man who did something feminine or a woman who did something un-ladylike or someone outside of that confined gender binary doing something that suits whichever gender you’re not used to; no one is 100% the gender they identify with all the time.
The All-American Genderfuck Cabaret is both educational and evocative and should be shared as a cultural and societal revolution; it can open your mind and broaden your horizons— new theatre at its finest.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission
The All-American Genderfuck Cabaret plays through April 19, 2014 at Glass Mind Theatre at Gallery 788— 3602 Hickory Avenue in Hampden. Tickets are available for purchase at the door or in advance online.