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.”
(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.