Allen Smith’s set for Annie Baker’s play Body Awareness at Pygmalion Theater is a kitchen and a bedroom — as Ikea-perfect as a dollhouse. There is something so orderly about the kitchen it’s startling; it ‘s too precious to be real. It seems it’s still a drawing on graph paper, black and white and gray. Too cozy and prescribed: a tiny black toaster ready to hold precise double slices of bread; precise slices of black and white evenly-marbled countertop; a slice of black and gray and white machine-made rug three-eighths of an inch thick beneath a plain black dining table and four chairs.
Add the misery of a household which seems to overhear everything everybody says when they don’t want to be heard, and you have a true misery of a dollhouse, terribly orderly and pretty but filled with the messiness of real people: a lesbian couple, Phyllis and Joyce — a college psychology professor and a high school “cultural studies” teacher — and their 21-year-old high-functioning autistic son Jared from Joyce’s previous marriage to a man. Add Frank, a visiting art-photographer, here to exhibit his photographs of women during Body Awareness Week at Phyllis’s Vermont college. In this dollhouse setting, they all go to war with each other. For a week. But as the play progresses, the title Body Awareness begins to feel like Loch Ness Awareness; something’s about to rise from the deep.
The Ikea graph-paper set proves all-purpose: without a move of a single object, it’s a floating mirage, a studio apartment of an art gallery, a college auditorium with a whiteboard, and then, voila, though in the same place, back to the same perfectly-useful dollhouse Ikea kitchen again, where all woes meet. (It wouldn’t be a surprise if this comfortable multi-purposeness was a result of director Morag Shepherd’s involvement: Shepherd is famous in Salt Lake City for unbelievably improvisational theater scenarios, geographically and sonically, and in terms of audience size. For her, this all-purpose, unboundaried set would be among her tamer magic tricks.)
But whenever Jared is onstage, beautifully acted without a single miss by Tom Roche, it’s home: in Velcro-fastened shoes and slightly-too-short trousers and a maroon hugging-him-too-closely zip-front jacket (the show’s costume designer is Madison Howell) he sits at the dining table with his beloved dictionary, repeating he does not have autism, he is “not an imbecile.” He is, he says, an “autodidact” (everyone else is imbecilic). Between frequently stating to his mother she should be dead, and planning to one day be part of the team continually re-editing the Oxford English Dictionary, he schemes to be fired from McDonald’s and to find a girl who will share the important act of sex with him.
The parental couple, Phyllis and Joyce, fiercely and acerbically played by Brenda Hattingh Peatross and Teresa Sanderson, are dreaming always of the right and witty answer to every one of Jared’s hot-faced attacking/insulting comments and questions; or more coolly arguing in the abstract: why is a college professor called an academic, but a high school teacher is not?; the photographer who is sharing their house for a week — is he a lustful man who photographs nude women (Phyllis’s opinion), or an artist who helps women accept themselves as they are (Joyce’s opinion).
Frank, the artist and visitor, played by Tom Cowan, floats among them, pivotal witness and a force of male reckoning, but ghostly, too: he’s a temp, soon he’ll disappear. His voice, through this play, is transcendent; just as when you see him step into the scenes you see the silver of his hair, strangely fox or bear-like in the way it seems to hold snow’s light or moonlight, you also hear his voice as if it is an animal call, floating high and eerie over a somehow-listening landscape below. Dressed in the precise same tones as the Ikea-kitchen, Frank cares, but he can also be coldly brisk (“you need to grow up” he, at one point, irritably says to Jared) and impulsive (at an awkward moment around the troubled household dinner table, Frank, who is not Jewish but in one of his ex-marriages was married to a Jew, goes improv, insisting on conducting an emotional, impromptu Jewish prayer ceremony with wine and candles (Joyce’s provided substitutes are cranberry juice and a battery-operated candle, with fake flame; “those are fine,” Frank cheerfully tells her).
The house, with its terrible lack of sound-proofing, lets everyone hear what everyone is saying about them: but thoughtful time-limited Frank never loses his cool. He keeps bravely, impudently, asking why not, in response to all criticism and questions, including Joyce’s question about whether she can be his next photo-object (much to her partner Phyllis’s dismay/disgust). “Do you have a crush on him? He’s evil,” Phyllis keeps saying to Joyce, though Joyce has pointed out to Phyllis most of his nude photographs are of extraordinarily ordinary women, some even cancer victims, post-mastectomy. Phyllis steadfastly refuses to acknowledge Frank as an artist: to her, he’s male power, taking advantage of women with a camera.
That wine-and-candles Jewish prayer service the family repeats later, spontaneously, without Frank present: the chanting/singing ceremony Frank suddenly led them through (meant for a Friday but used by them on a Tuesday) seems to have given them a restored mast, an extra oar, or a tradition: a ghostly persisting fatherly shoulder this agnostic family somehow craves. At the redo, Phyllis, who once told the whole household she hated Frank and mocked him during the first ceremony, takes his place at the second and leans upon him as a role model.
This play by Pulitzer Prize-winning and MacArthur genius grant-receiving playwright Annie Baker asks: beyond a guest-filled roster of presentations at a college in Vermont (the slate of performers presented by the college is circus-like, circus-fervent, and Phyllis, announcing the performers, has a circus barker’s frantic, never-satisfied gaze): what is “body awareness”? Is it somehow magically setting asunder women’s self-consciousness caused by believing their bodies are “ruled by the male gaze?”
Setting women free of that slavery is what Phyllis, the college teacher/Ph.D./psychologist in this play, believes should happen; but her intense reaction to Frank’s photographs is single-note, unorchestrated. The art world may once have been full of men who, lust-filled, displayed one naked woman after another in their paintings, as if comparing finds in a magic male painterly groupie harem (Pygmalion theater is named, even, after such a phenomenon), but modern art, deeply affected by the clarity of photography, is a different art world, flooded with far more surprises and truths. Thus, Phyllis’s rage in this play is a political hangover from a bygone day. Phyllis, despite her Ph.D., doesn’t seem to know that modern art has already experienced a quiet revolution against women-as-objects; she doesn’t know that the world of art is her friend, having been, for years, at least a deep agent of change, a cultural modifier. (If the visiting photographer were a female, would the character Phyllis’s fury dissipate? Or would she still believe that any nudity of women, revealed, was continued enslavement? This question, answered, could have changed the course of this play.)
This 2008 play, with its vague echoes of the old Broadway play Whose Life is it Anyway? (in the way it keeps asking whose body is it, after all?) comes to quiet end: all bickering ceases, all becomes search, prayer, for Jared’s rescue from a moment of indiscretion. As lightning has been known to make the dumb speak, or the blind see, confessing to Phyllis and Joyce that he was wrong seems to change Jared, makes him empathetic and accepting of his own weaknesses and need for help.
In the Ikea-perfect kitchen set, all black and gray and white, there is, from the beginning, a haunting element: seen against the blackness of the stage, the brilliant white grids of cubes of shelves, which rise above the white kitchen cabinets and the huge headboard of a bed, are shadowboxes, utterly empty: they are boxy pristine cubist trellises where ivy could climb, or the still-blank future. They also, graphically, represent the mooring and the sweetness of “home” or “home awareness” — the place you hope to go if you’ve set yourself too free and you’ve lost yourself, and you need something, or someone(s), to cling to.
Pygmalion Production’s Body Awareness, Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, Salt Lake City, through May 26.
Rebecca Pyle is a writer and an artist with work in dozens of art/literary journals, in the United States and also in journals (in the English language) in Hong Kong and the U.K. and Northern Ireland, Belgium, India, France, and Germany. She graduated from the university the Wizard of Oz adored, the University of Kansas, where she studied art and lit. See rebeccapyleartist.com.
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