March 8 – May 5, 2002
Production Design by Charles A. Duncombe
Cast: Maia Brewton, Maureen Byrnes, Victoria Coulson, Lawrence Coven, Ilana Gustafson, Bo Roberts, Paul M. Rubenstein
City Girl in Heat
by Edmund Newton
21 March 2002
A play based on four Aimee Bender stories bursts with primordial passions.
Apocalypse has generally been the preoccupation of men. Let the ladies weave their stories about relationships and family histories, we’ll take care of the flaming lakes and exploding buildings, thank you. But contemporary women writers like Aimee Bender, four of whose stories have been turned into a play called The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, which premiered last week at City Garage, seem less willing to relinquish the field. Bender’s female characters are racked with longing, knotted with angst; they all seem as if they’re about to burst into flames. Their pain apparently has less to do with chauvinist men than with just being alive, though they all stew in their own powerlessness. You get the feeling that, for all of their mundane problems, these harsh, edgy, self-absorbed women are somehow listening to the sound of continents grinding together, feeling the rush of lava beneath their feet and trying to make poetry out of their doomed lives.
The most successful of the stories in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, which was adapted and directed by Frédérique Michel, gives us Susie (Maia Brewton), a feisty city girl whose lust for life is haunting and primal. Susie yearns to burrow into things, to sink her teeth in, to dive headfirst into the mud of the city where she lives. For a small person, her appetites are big, rampant and uncontrolled. Sex for her is a threesome: “me the woman, me the man, and him, the red-haired guy with the great hands.” But her lover (Paul M. Rubenstein), a guy she picks up at a party, is still in the proverbial box, she discovers. “He thinks I’m just some girly girl, receptacle envelope girl,” she tells us, as the two actors play the scene fully nude. “He doesn’t know what I’m thinking. He doesn’t know I’m also a shadow on his back, pushing in.”
Brewton is short and bouncy on her feet, darting terrierlike in and out of situations, but she also conveys a deep, ineffable anguish. At one point, Susie searches out her lover in a manhole (for some reason she calls it a “pothole”), in the grid of pipes and conduits beneath the streets. Being in the hole is a turn-on for Susie, a metaphor for sexually penetrating the city. She finds her man there in his work clothes, his work gloves stained with oil. “I want him to grab me with those gloves,” she recounts, “and smear oil all over my body and my nice dress and throw me on the ground with all those cars above us, a ceiling of cars.” But, of course, he doesn’t, and Susie is propelled through the city on a lonely quest for — what? Love? Serenity? Susie ends up in a hotel room, with a 65-year-old man boffing her from behind. It’s a remarkable performance by Brewton, who makes Susie’s hurt as palpable as a knife edge.
The other stories, all of which blend into each other rather than being separated by blackouts, aren’t quite as successful. In a ham-handed attempt at satire, a spoiled rich woman (a naked, easy-on-the-eyes Victoria Coulson) goes on an “auditioning” excursion through the subways, trying to find a man to ravish her. She picks an unsmiling, uncommunicative man who cuts her dress off and ties her to a chair but won’t have sex with her. “You can’t just tie up a millionaire’s daughter and not fuck her,” she complains.
A middle-aged woman (Maureen Byrnes) watches her clod of a husband eat the meal she has prepared and fantasizes violently about “rescuing” the food from his crude mouth — reaching a hand in there “to bring it all out, until there is just a mush of alive potato between us” — and then shooting him in the knee. An anguished young woman (Ilana Gustafson) cares for her wheelchair-bound father, thinking of her task as a big rock that she carries around, wondering when youthful passion will be allowed to burst out in her, like flames consuming a chiffon skirt.
Michel directs with her customary adventurousness. There’s a bare stage with a jutting platform, which is transformed by a variety of slides and tapes projected across the back. When the seductive rich woman is in the subway, we see the steel sides and sliding doors of subway cars. When Susie is in the throes of sex with the old man, his passion-distorted face is in huge, grotesque enlargement behind him. The women tell their stories in declarative sentences that mostly begin with “I,” putting us off sometimes with their self-centeredness but haunting us with the intensity of their feeling. With all its heat and stabs of passion, the show seems closer to poetry or music than the “realistic” narratives that often pass for literature nowadays.
Back Stage West
13 March 2002
by Madeleine Shaner
There are certain givens as to how we are supposed to feel, how we are expected to behave. Politically correct, socially adherent, emotionally restrained–these are considered the most suitable behaviors for acceptably human beings; the social contract is too often an unsigned charter for liars to follow. Aimee Bender’s short, short stories, adapted to the stage and directed by Frederique Michel, look searingly into the heart of women’s darkness, sharing the deadly, secret truths of women waiting for their passion. Staying close to Bender’s earthily poetic, matter-of-fact presentation of bizarre fulfillments, the women eschew face value and dig down into their own screwed-up psyches for such complex personal reasons as spite, vanity, narcissism, and raw emotional hunger.
Victoria Coulson, in an unselfconscious performance as a spoiled little rich girl in “Call My Name,” presents herself on a platter to a Shy Man (Paul M. Rubenstein), whom she follows from the subway. Rebuffed by his lack of interest in her, she hangs around, naked and tied up, watching Jeopardy with him rather than be alone.
In “Fell This Girl,” Maia Brewton is boldy disarming as a woman obsessed with the body sexual–a tool she uses casually in her search for a deeper connection with herself, which consistently eludes her. She seduces, or lets herself be seduced by, Patrick (Rubenstein), a man she meets at a party, as well as an older man with a “wrinkled-up gray chest” (Bo Roberts), an escapee from a business convention, thus reducing passion to a tactile, sadly temporary gratification.
The title story reduces the father/ daughter relationship to a dirge about the burden of familial love. The delicious sharpness of Bender’s language loses some of its light in the hands of Laurence Coven and Ilana Gustafson, although the problem may be that the story becomes inaccessible by reaching too deep for its grasp, forgoing the wit of the writer’s skewed, vitally funny vision.
Opening and closing the mostly delicious event, in two short passages from “Fugue,” is the wry Narrator of two of the stories (an awesome Maureen Byrnes), who opens her own can of worm-eaten cynicism, brought on by a life that scarcely registers her presence.
Michel’s direction and Charles A. Duncombe Jr.’s clean production design echo and enhance the clarity of the storyteller’s language and the erotic stimulation of its “body-centered aesthetic.”