Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Who’s a Horse’s Ass?

Marissa Skudlarek discusses Megan Cohen’s most recent contribution to the SF Olympians Festival, and one local critic’s take on the show.

George Heymont begins his review of Centaurs and Satyrs, an Olympians Festival staged reading that happened last Thursday, by outlining the recent upsurge in feminist advocacy among theater-makers and in the culture at large. He notes that the Olympians Festival, while never explicitly framing itself as a feminist organization, has a better record of gender parity among its writers than many other theaters in town. So far, so good. Critics should be aware of the current sociopolitical issues and trends relating to their art form, and feminism is one of the loudest conversations happening right now. It’s nice to see a male critic acknowledge that.

Heymont then transitions into discussing the reading of Megan Cohen’s Centaurs, or The Horse’s Ass, a “postmodern vaudeville comedy” for two women. I was at the theater last Thursday, too, and I’d describe the play as a mix of traditional vaudeville tropes (soft-shoe routines, “Who’s on First”-style wordplay) and edgier elements (gross-out humor, dick jokes). And, starting with a joke about the difference between a “horse” and a “whore” and going on from there, the play also becomes more and more interested in issues of feminism and gender. It’s a scathing and provocative piece, whose feminism isn’t just “rah-rah, women are awesome” platitudes, but something much more complex and searching.

Heymont’s intro paragraphs about feminism led me to believe that he was gearing up to point out these aspects of The Horse’s Ass. Instead, Heymont writes, “Although Cohen and Bousel [sic] cast two women as their centaurs, the gender of the actors was not as important as the concept of two centaurs trying to tell corny jokes and perform bits of physical comedy onstage.”

Say what?

(You’ll have to imagine a record-scratching sound here, people.)

To say that the gender of the actors in The Horse’s Ass was “not important” or suggest the play would have been equally effective with male actors is frankly, incomprehensible.

First of all, it’s always a feminist statement when women get to be loud and messy and grotesque onstage. Gallagher may smash watermelons and the dudes of PianoFight may host “Throw Rotten Veggies at the Actors” Night, but when was the last time you saw two women onstage chewing up and spitting out carrots?

Second, the initial scenes of The Horse’s Ass might work OK with men in the roles, but when themes of gender and feminism explicitly enter the text, it wouldn’t work with anything but women. Megan is fascinated by the half-human, half-horse nature of the centaur, and situates that within a clearly female context: “Do you ever feel like the best and most noble parts of yourself are tied to the worst and most despicable things a human being can have inside them? Like, despite the fact that you are capable of love and of mercy, you’re also just a two-legged hatrack on which is hung a gaping, yearning hellmouth that spews blood and can never be satisfied?” Try imagining a man saying that!

The vaudeville also contains the following scenes, which wouldn’t work with male actors:

A discussion about whether you’d rather be raped or murdered (“I guess I’d rather be raped. Since 1 out of every 6 women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, it would at least give me something in common with a lot of people, so if I’m at a party or something I can be like ‘Hey, the funniest thing happened to me the other day, has this ever happened to you?’ and 1 out of every 6 women would be like ‘Oh my god, totally’”).

Use of carrots as substitute penises, which gets into that whole Freudian thing about female penis envy and wouldn’t work, y’know, if the actors had penises of their own.

An extended metaphor contrasting the discursive structure of a vaudeville act and the phallic-linear structure of a Hero’s Journey narrative, “the decadent last breath of a dying patriarchy obsessed with the dogmatic enforcement of their own sexual template as the dominant format for cultural pleasure.” Which is why you need women up on stage, saying that. Not representatives of the dying patriarchy.

I should admit here that I’m biased. For reasons that even I can’t fully understand, the staged reading of The Horse’s Ass cracked something in me wide open and left me feeling weird and vulnerable for the entire next day. About two-thirds of the way through watching it, I started feeling like I was about to cry – and not in the “laughing so hard you cry” way, but out of some combination of envy and discomfort and confusion and anguish. Gratitude toward Megan for writing such a trenchant play, mixed with despair at the world her play depicted.

Earlier that day, I’d already been in a weird mood. It seemed that if I separately considered each individual fact of my life and my existence, things seemed manageable, even forgivable. But when I thought about my life and the world as a giant, interconnected system, it seemed irrevocably fucked up. I had become preoccupied with the idea that the white race is the cancer of human history, as Susan Sontag said, and that even Western culture’s most stirring achievements (symphonies, cathedrals, Greek mythology) probably aren’t enough to redeem us. I had also been haunted by some comment I’d read online saying that if you are a heterosexual woman, if you wish to love a man and be loved by him in turn, you are merely a victim of Stockholm syndrome who’s been brainwashed into empathizing with your oppressor. I felt trapped by my race and gender and class and circumstances, doomed from birth to be a white oppressor and a self-deluding female, and not strong or brave enough to help overthrow society.

And then, after having such thoughts, I saw a play that asked, “Do you ever feel like the best and most noble parts of yourself are tied to the worst and most despicable things a human being can have inside them?” A play that reminded me that my attachment to linear storytelling is a symptom of how I’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy. And it’s no wonder that, after the play ended, I made a beeline for the EXIT Theatre’s back courtyard, sat on a bench, and sobbed.

Megan and I belong to a similar demographic: white, female, born in the 1980s, educated at fancy colleges, spending too much time on the Internet. For that reason, it makes sense that I’d feel a stronger connection to her play than George Heymont did. (And, conversely, it might be a fair criticism of her piece if it works for people in her own demographic but is incomprehensible to the older generation.) I’m not saying that Heymont is required to love or appreciate Megan’s writing. But, if he’s going to set himself up as a “legitimate” arts blogger, I do expect him to discuss the work he sees with accuracy and insight. I expect him to realize that, not only is feminism a big topic of discussion these days, but also that he’s got a blazingly insightful feminist vaudeville onstage in front of him.

If I look at Heymont’s review of The Horse’s Ass as an isolated event – just a bizarre misinterpretation of a single work of art – it seems manageable, even forgivable.

But if I look at his review in the context of a wider system – a system in which women’s art is devalued and even an explicitly, brutally feminist play is dismissed as “not really about gender” – it seems irrevocably fucked up.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer who is a combination of the noble and the despicable. Like you. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

37 comments on “Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Who’s a Horse’s Ass?

  1. Rob Ready says:

    For the record, dudes AND LADIES were pelted hard in the face with all manner of vegetables at PianoFight.

    • Thanks for the correction, Rob. I didn’t see any ladies in the video, though, which is why I thought it was a good example to use to support my point.

      • Rob Ready says:

        You can catch a glimpse of Gabi Patacsil in that vid. But yeah, it was mostly the guys who signed up that first time. That said, I know a bunch of women have done it up in SF and in LA.

        I should add that I am stoked on this piece. You make great points. And gender parity in theater is a HUGE issue.

        One random story I’ll tell just cause I thought it was funny. Maybe a year ago, I was reading about a FB group called “Yeah I said Feminist.” I was thrilled about this group, and contacted the organizer, Fontana Butterfield, trying to synch her up with Lisa Steindler and Brenda Way at Z Space and ODC respectively as potential venues for their launch party. I also asked if I could join the group because I believe in the cause.

        Her response was, “No. This is a female group. And while we appreciate the help and interest, it might change the dynamic to have men in the group – ie, women might not feel as comfortable saying what they want to if men are present.”

        I totally got that. And, I appreciated that she was just like, “Nerp. Sorry.” Basically, I don’t think there are many all-female spaces in theater, and I thought it took courage to just flatly say no. She did however say I could come baby-sit during meetings. Naturally, I totally signed up for that. =)

  2. “Although Cohen and Bousel cast two women…”

    Wait, did he just brush-off the contribution of director Ellery Schaar? I see that in his review he briefly mentions her, but still…

    • Hence the [sic] in my article. Yeah, as Festival administrator, Stuart Bousel had to approve the final casting, but the decisions to write and cast an all-female play rested entirely with Megan Cohen and Ellery Schaar. No need to give a man credit for that!

  3. What a powerful post. So much to think about. Thank you for this.

  4. jereco1962 says:

    Get out of my head, Marissa. I read his opening bit about feminism and gender-parity and thought “this is going to be great.” But then all that turned out to be a red herring. Bizarro. I found the show hilarious as well as disturbing, and it makes ALL THE WORLD of difference that it’s two women. Casting two men in those roles would be like producing a white version of “A Raisin in the Sun.”

  5. Dear Marissa:

    Thanks for sharing your feelings about what I wrote in my review. I’m sure you understand that different writers take different approaches to subject matter and one person’s opinion (whether writing from a critical standpoint or not) often varies from another’s.

    The way I usually structure my blog posts, the first section is the teaser to establish a theme and get people interested — the following sections usually revolve around productions I am reviewing. However, it seems like a few points of clarification are in order here.

    1. Whether or not you feel you may have been affected by it, there was a full moon on November 6.

    2. While I may have personal problems of my own to deal with, I did not enter the EXIT Theatre that night with your extremely specific emotions and reference points on my mind.

    3. The term “post-modern vaudeville” was taken directly from the show’s promotional material (which may or may not have been written by Megan Cohen).

    4. When I gave Stuart partial credit for casting the show, I did so because he makes a great deal of the decisions regarding many aspects of the San Francisco Olympians Festival and has discussed casting sessions for various plays on Facebook.

    5. Both men and women are fully capable of eating and spitting out carrots (which is the first bit of business in the show) and carrying each other on their backs (which was one of the last bits of business). I did not think the gender of the actors onstage that night prevented them from performing either of these tasks. I thought they were chosen for what they (and their personalities) might bring to Cohen’s script.

    6. What strikes me as particularly odd about your comments is the attitude that I was not writing a review aimed at your demographic or one which told you want you wanted (or somehow expected) to hear. Bill Maher has commented on this phenomenon recently on his HBO show — specifically noting that we are facing a whole generation of rather petulant people who feel that if you don’t tell them what they want to hear or expect to read that you have somehow maligned them and/or insulted their intelligence.

    I’m simply conveying my own personal reaction to the show which, considering its heavy vaudevillian influence, I approached as a piece of entertainment (rather than an intense academic dissertation on feminism).

    George Heymont

    • What does a full moon have to do with what happened on stage?

      • It has nothing to do with what happened onstage. It has everything to do with Marissa’s description of her heightened emotional state and hypersensitivity on the day of the performance (not that many people find themselves sobbing in an alley after a series of vaudeville skits).

      • So let me see if I’ve got this straight: from your description, Marissa’s emotional reaction to the play had NOTHING to do with its subject matter (which touched upon women coping with harassment and sexual assault – among other things – through laughter), but was just because the moon was messing with her lady-feelings?

        Am I getting that right?

    • Let me take your points one by one, George:

      1. I am mystified as to why you’ve begun your critique-of-my-critique-of-your-critique with this reference to the full moon. The part of me that is uncharitable and stridently feminist wonders if you’re alluding to the old associations between the moon, women, and “female hysteria,” and therefore implying that my emotional reaction to Megan’s play was caused merely by the influence of a planetary body upon my uterus. However, I have no wish to be uncharitable.

      2. I am well aware that every member of the audience (you and me included) entered the EXIT Theatre with a different set of reference points, preoccupations, and emotions that night. I also believe that, if one’s reference points and preoccupations influence one’s reaction to a work of art, it is generally a GOOD idea to point them out. In this piece, I freely admitted my biases and where I was coming from. No criticism is truly “objective.”

      3. We both used the phrase “postmodern vaudeville comedy” in our reviews, and in both cases, I think we took it from the promotional material (which was prepared by Megan). I’m not sure why you feel the need to include this as one of the points in your response. I don’t think either of us dispute the basic classification of this play as “postmodern vaudeville comedy.”

      4. Indeed, you did mention director Ellery Schaar in your review, but I found it odd that you didn’t give her any credit for the casting. In the Olympians Festival, the director (often with input from the writer) chooses the actors, and Stuart Bousel gives final casting approval. He has no direct artistic input, however.

      5. This is the crux of the issue. Yes, men and women are both fully capable of spitting carrots, giving piggy-back rides, delivering corny jokes, doing soft-shoe routines, etc. But, I ask you again, is a man “fully capable” of describing himself as “a two-legged hatrack on which is hung a gaping, yearning hellmouth that spews blood and can never be satisfied”? Is a man fully capable of performing the “would you rather be raped or murdered” scene? Is a man fully capable of bringing out all of the gender issues of Megan’s script, which are not merely subtextual, but which are explicit in both its FORM and CONTENT?

      6. I don’t feel like your initial review of Megan’s play maligned me or insulted my intelligence (though suggesting that MY reaction to the play was caused by the full moon does rather devalue my capabilities as a thinking human being, IMO). However, I do expect criticism to engage with work that deserves to be engaged with — and although Megan’s play began in the form of a vaudeville entertainment, the script clearly indicates that it has more on its mind than corny jokes. I hold art and criticism to high standards, and I do not think that has anything to do with whether or not I belong to a “petulant generation.”

      One more point. You insist, again, that the gender of the actors was not important and that casting women “did not prevent” the demands of the script from being met. Are you saying that an actor’s gender is only important when it PREVENTS them from doing something? As opposed to what a female actor can bring to the table by virtue of her gender? I worry that you somehow think you’re complimenting Megan’s play by saying that the gender of the performers doesn’t matter. After all (sarcasm alert), everyone knows that for art to be great, it must be “universal,” and therefore plays that require female actors are less valuable than plays that could be performed by actors of either gender! But in actuality, it’s extremely sexist to suggest that a play that requires female actors is “less-than” a play that could be cast gender-neutrally. And, as you claimed in your introductory paragraph to be attuned to present-day feminism, I thought you would be aware of that.

      • Dear Marissa:

        My reference to the full moon possibly affecting your emotional state on November 6 was not in association to women and “female hysteria.” One of my medical transcription accounts used to be the St. Francis Memorial Hospital Emergency Room in the Tenderloin. Anyone who works in an Emergency Room can tell you that full moons provoke unexpectedly strange behavior – whether it be the man who insisted that Mayor Dianne Feinstein had implanted an electronic chip in his head and was monitoring his thoughts with the help of the San Francisco Police Department – or the woman who was found naked, delusional, and setting fires on Larkin Street but who, after being brought to the emergency room, left against medical advice because she claimed she had a temp job assignment on Monday morning.

        As for the “Would you rather be raped or murdered?” scene, you might be surprised at the number of BDSM rape fantasies to be found among gay men – and the number of men who will routinely say things like “I want you to rape me” in chat rooms and one-handed fiction. They may think of rape as all fun and games and sexually titillating, but the language is stark and sad. I’ve also met several gay men over the years who thought of themselves as little more than “two available holes.” That may be a problem with the self-image of a power bottom, but that’s how they defined themselves.

        As far as whether or not an actor’s gender is important for Megan Cohen’s play, although it was obviously very important to you, it was not that important to me. Over 50 years of theatregoing and 35 years of writing about the arts, I’ve seen plenty of mezzo sopranos in trouser roles (some of which were originally written for castrati). Did they have the same sound as a male castrato? I doubt it. Were they capable of performing Handel’s music? Undoubtedly.

        Finally, as a friend pointed out to me after reading your piece, you seem quite capable of accusing me of being sexist in my review while ignoring your obvious ageism in suggesting that because I belong to “an older generation” I might not be able to relate to your demographic. I was your age once and, if you remain in good health, someday you will be my age.

      • You say you weren’t accusing her of moon-based hysteria, then follow up with a story about crazy homeless.

        You suggest the “rape/murder” monologue isn’t about sexual assault against women, but rather about the sexual habits of Gay men… in a show about two women?

        You say gender doesn’t matter to you… when reviewing a show written by, directed by, and starring all women.

        You accuse Marissa of “ageism” when YOU brought up the Bill Maher thing of the “petulant generation”.

        Oh yeah, that argument holds a lot of water. /sarcasm

  6. Robert Estes says:

    I just know that play needs to have a big and immediate future right in front of it.

  7. Bailz says:

    I feel bad that I couldn’t see the show, but now I’m going to make sure and see it when it’s (pardon the pun) mounted again. If this show can inspire such a lengthy review and such a thorough retort to said review, it’s got to be worth seeing right?

  8. Eileen Tull says:

    As always, I am impressed by Marissa’s thoughtfulness, critical eye, and writing ability. Both in the original post and in her rebuttal.

    Is this an appropriate place to shout out a “you go, girl!”? Ahhh, I’m doin’ it. YOU GO, GIRL!

  9. Mr. Heymont’s comment that questions Ms. Skudlarek’s response to the play (“whether or not you feel you may have been affected by it…”) is infuriating. She doesn’t ‘feel she may have,’ she WAS. You know how I know? She told us. You know how she knows? She experienced it. She’s the authority of her own experience. And to tie her emotional reaction to how much of the moon was visible that night is inexcusable.

  10. Bailz says:

    In a battle between two bloggers, why am I so much more inclined to take seriously the one without the “Donate Now” button at the top?

  11. Megan Cohen says:

    Regarding Mr. Heymont’s comment above, in which he cites the role of rape fantasy in gay male BDSM chat rooms and “one-handed fiction” as part of his reasoning that the female gender of our actors was incidental to my work, I would like to share the following statistics:

    1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.

    About 3% of American men — or 1 in 33 — have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.

    9 out of every 10 rape victims were female in 2003.

    While I hope nobody would claim that sexual assault against men isn’t a horrifying event that has its own cultural impact, I also hope (given the numbers) that nobody would claim the impact or meaning of rape is interchangeable or equal among genders in our society.

    Within this cultural context, I believe it is crucial to my play that the performer be female when answering, to the question “Would you rather be raped or murdered?”, “I guess I’d rather be raped. Since 1 out of every 6 women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, it would at least give me something in common with a lot of people, so if I’m at a party or something I can be like ‘Hey, the funniest thing happened to me the other day, has this ever happened to you?’ and 1 out of every 6 women would be like ‘Oh my god, totally.’

    I believe that the above dialogue, if performed by 2 men or by a mixed-gender pair, would not have the intended resonance. Nor would it have the intended resonance if performed by transgender artists, for whom the statistics on assault are even more grim.

    For more information on the impact that sexual assault has on survivors, please visit the website of the the nation’s largest anti-sexual assault organization:


  12. Valerie Weak says:

    Megan Cohen & Marissa Skudlarek you are thoughtful and articulate women. Not having seen the piece – here’s what I thought about when reading this post and these comments. http://www.theawl.com/2013/07/rape-joke-patricia-lockwood

  13. One final response, and then I feel like I might be done with this conversation for a while:

    George, for whatever reason, you’re hung up on the fact that this play affected me emotionally. It made me “sob in an alley,” and that’s not a “normal” reaction to a series of vaudeville sketches. And I admit that it’s not — but I also believe that THE HORSE’S ASS wasn’t a “normal” vaudeville. Moreover, I probably wouldn’t be writing about this play, on this blog, if it hadn’t affected me so deeply. Did part of my emotional reaction have to do with the mood I was in and the thoughts I’d been having? Probably. Was the moon involved? Who knows, it could’ve been. But even on nights when the moon is full and my thoughts are gloomy, not every play I see touches me so deeply; not every play makes me cry. It takes a special play to do that.

    Furthermore, isn’t this — this emotional reaction, the chance to think new thoughts and feel new feelings — the point of going to see theater? I know that Megan’s play didn’t move you the way it moved me, and that’s fine. I wouldn’t expect any work of art to affect two people the same way.

    But I have to ask: have you ever seen a play or opera that affected you more deeply than it affected the rest of the audience? Haven’t you felt that that made everything else, all the bad or mediocre plays you’ve sat through, worthwhile? Don’t you always, secretly, hope that when you sit in a theater and the lights go down, that you will feel that magic touch you? And even if you realize that some of your reaction has to do with the position of the moon, or with your current emotional state, or what’s happening in your life at the time… does that really diminish the depth or purity of your emotion? And if a critic writes a review of the play in question, and seems to overlook the elements of it that made it so special and meaningful for you — wouldn’t you be impassioned to leap to the play’s defense?

    I fervently hope that you’ve had that kind of special, emotional experience in your fifty years of theatergoing (and if you haven’t, I genuinely feel sorry for you). And if you know that feeling, if you’ve had that kind of reaction to a play — why do you feel the need to dismiss it when it happens to me?

    • “I am an excitable person who only understands life lyrically, musically, in whom feelings are much stronger as reason. I am so thirsty for the marvelous that only the marvelous has power over me. Anything I can not transform into something marvelous, I let go. Reality doesn’t impress me. I only believe in intoxication, in ecstasy, and when ordinary life shackles me, I escape, one way or another. No more walls.”
      ― Anaïs Nin

  14. […] second incident that came to mind is one that regular ‘Pub readers know all too well. I actually love this because it’s the perfect example of what I’ve been trying to say: that […]

  15. […] as a surprise, since people don’t tend to think of me as a weepy person. When, a few months ago, I wrote about a staged reading that left me sobbing in the back courtyard of the EXIT Theatre, several friends expressed surprise […]

  16. […] and lows, grandeur and farce, in a way that appeals to me very much. (Not to toot my own horn, but sobbing in an alley after a postmodern vaudeville show strikes me as very […]

  17. […] Pub means Marissa calling out another writer’s sexism, leading to a fiery discussion that blew up the comments section of her […]

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