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On the muggy evening of June 10, a small but appreciative audience attended Anam Cara Theatre Company's production of ….and everything nice: A Purity Anti-Manifesto for the Stage at the Toy Boat Community Art Space. Even in a progressive town like Asheville, it is unfortunate that new works for the stage only receive modest support. It was especially disappointing for this production, as the play deals with the relevant topic of gender inequality, particularly in regards to the demonization of female sexuality and identity.
Trish Cole's writing provided much needed insight into the fact that sex has been used by men since time immemorial as a physically, emotionally, and psychologically violent means of female subjugation. Cole's script offers some wonderful moments. In a frank dialogue between Rebecca (played with nuanced paranoia by Molly Graves) and her daughter Mary (a versatile role played with great conviction by Kayla Russell), sex is described as "swimming, [with] the ocean knocking you around." Later in the same act, Rebecca offers sage advice to her daughter, "Don't be driven by what feels good; be driven by what feels right."
Perhaps one of the most memorable scenes in the play features a conversation between Mary Magdalene (Kate Kearns), Eve (Kristen Aldrich), and Bubbe (Frances Davis), where rape is discussed as one of the vilest crimes. Davis delivered a powerful monologue on the subject at this performance, describing the injustice inherent in the lack of action taken by men to stop such a crime. "What did Jesus ever do for us?" she asks both her fellow actors and the audience. Concise, provocative lines like this one abound throughout, and represent one of Cole's strengths as a playwright. However, her strength here is undermined by a lack of editing. Simply put, the play clocks in at almost three hours in length. While there were some great moments, the pacing of the scenes tended to drag, diminishing the impact of some of the more powerful and memorable scenes.
The play's length is the result of several intersecting plot lines: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Joan of Arc's spirit in the body of an American high school teen, the aforementioned discussion between deceased women of history, the Salem Witch Trials, and a teenage daughter and her family and schoolmates in contemporary Middle America. How all these settings intersect is too complex to describe here, though they do ultimately coalesce into a satisfying dénouement, with the latter two settings providing an especially dramatic and expertly staged conclusion. For the majority of the play, however, it feels like too many story arcs and character interactions are vying for the spotlight, which detrimentally impacts the development of the play's protagonists. The result is an ironic presentation of one-dimensional female characters in what is otherwise supposed to be a play illuminating the unbroken cycle of gender inequality.
Additionally, the women in the play are often portrayed as weak individuals, incapable of controlling their own destinies and succumbing far too quickly to male domination. Perhaps Cole is trying to emphasize the reification of male domination in most human societies, thereby restricting her female characters' ability to transform as individuals. However, the characters by-and-large – the protagonist (a teenage girl focused a little too much on dating and boys), four cheerleaders with indistinguishable personalities, and a psychologically unstable and overprotective mother – represent negative stereotypes of women.
There were, of course, a few exceptions, most notably Joan of Arc (played with impeccably focused intent by Pearl Conley). She is a character who, throughout the course of the narrative, never abandons her principles. On the other hand, the role of an otherwise notable historical female figure was written in a manner that emphasized the divine hallucinations of Joan of Arc more than her strength and courage.
Director Missy Bell did her best to overcome the gargantuan length of the play. The quick set changes helped to decrease the production's length, though the set changes were so rapid that they often elided directly into the middle of a subsequent scene. The creative stage design featured minimal props, with a set of blocks used for various purposes in each scene, ranging from the foundation of a bed to bushes in a garden. The economic use of props may have been the result of limited resources, but it also served the narrative, the crates representing multiple objects across a space-time continuum. The centerpiece of the set was a large replica of a tree, also serving multiple narrative functions ranging from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden to the site of execution in the final Salem Witch Trial vignette. As a whole, the cast also maintained a quick pacing, engaging in dialogue that was quick enough to understand but never slow enough to drag out the already lengthy play. However, some of the best lines were often rushed as each actor did his/her best to get out powerful messages that could have benefited from a brief pause to allow the audience an opportunity to silently reflect. Similarly, some of Cole's wittiest lines were quickly spat out, providing little time for the audience to respond with laughter.
Nonetheless, Anam Cara Theatre Company should be commended for tackling such an ambitious project. While the results were uneven at times, the overall product was a play that truly did provide a catalyst for discussions on gender inequality between both female and male viewers. In this sense, the play achieved a far greater goal than the work itself.
…and everything nice: A Purity Anti-Manifesto for the Stage continues through Saturday, June 18. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.