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The worst great play I’ve ever seen

Posted by on January 31, 2013

You guys, a local theater is showing a play that the critics are absolutely loving. It’s about a young prince who wanders around in this cool gloomy castle and interacts with a bunch of fascinating, strange characters. There’s love and singing and a play within a play, and the writing is amazing.

Doesn’t that sound like a light-hearted, awesome fairy tale? Wouldn’t you be really upset if you had read that description and then you showed up at the theater and found yourself sitting through the three hours of murder, brooding soliloquies and madness that we call Hamlet?

This was pretty much my experience last night when Michele and I went to see The Wild Bride at Berkeley Rep. This play gets described as “an enchanted, bluesy folktale,” “quirky and larky, magical and wild,” and “a feminist fairy tale.”

*From now on, this post will contain several MAJOR spoilers, as well as some descriptions of pretty gross things. Be warned.*

Weirdly, at no point do any of these reviews mention that in the first twenty minutes a young girl is molested on stage by the Devil and then her father is forced to chop off her hands. I mean, she’s molested with graceful dance moves, but it is horrifying. To the point where I was actually grateful when the father started sharpening his axe because at least the really bad part was over.

Things pretty much begin disgusting, middle in a terrible way, and end somewhere next to awful. Michele also found the aforementioned scene extremely upsetting, but just to make sure that she had a horror designed especially for her, (Michele, stop reading this paragraph, you don’t need to live this part over again) somewhere in the second act they bring out a beautifully crafted deer puppet that moves just like a real deer and then they cut out its eyes and tongue and you can watch it die a horrible death with gruesome red gore hanging out of its head. About the worst thing you can do to Michele is mention something bad happening to an animal, so my hat is off to these guys. I know how to torture my best friend if anyone does, and even I never would have thought of this.

But here’s what really bugged me: this play is billed as feminist. There’s actually a line right in the play where the Devil marvels “For a feminist fairy tale, this story is pretty interesting!”

Guys, here are the ways in which your play completely fails to be feminist:

  • A father accidentally sells his daughter to the devil. No one ever questions the idea that a father could “own” his daughter.
  • The Devil is unable to completely rape the little girl because her soul is “too pure” and it hurts him to touch her. (Though it didn’t seem to bother him moments ago when he was touching her in some horrifying ways, but okay.) No one ever addresses what “pure” might mean, but after the girl grows up and has had sex, the Devil doesn’t seem to have any problem touching her.
  • The girl has no voice for almost the entire play. This bothered me the most. She has no lines at all until the very last scene, when she’s finally empowered enough to speak up for herself. I have no quarrel with this artistically, but a play in which the main character is female and not permitted to speak is not a feminist play.
  • The only other female character is the girl’s mother-in-law, who for about half her scenes is played by a giant painting with human hands stuck through it. She is static and perfect, you guys! Just like a woman should be!
  • There’s only one scene between the two women, wherein the mother-in-law, in obedience to what she thinks are her son’s wishes, tries to kill the Wild Bride and the Bride’s newborn daughter. At the last minute she decides she can’t do it, and kills the deer instead. “Aha,” I thought, “at last we’re coming to the feminist part. This woman is going to stand up and say ‘No way is one woman going to be forced to hurt another woman at the orders of her own son.’ Now is when she takes care of the girl and her new grandchild.” But instead the mother-in-law banishes the girl and her newborn child to the wilderness, where they will almost certainly die but at least the blood won’t be on the mother-in-law’s hands.
  • The girl’s hands do eventually grow back, with no explanation except that she had learned to live in the wilderness and be content there. Basically, ladies, as long as you stay happy and don’t go around railing against your fate or trying to change anything, you will be rewarded.

I know that the play was based on a Grimm fairy tale, and these plot points aren’t the author’s fault. But you don’t get to call yourself feminist unless you actually are. This fairy tale isn’t feminist, and the author of the play did nothing to correct that. Twist the fairy tale to your own ends, give the girl a voice, give any woman in the play some kind of agency. For god’s sake, at the point when the mother-in-law attacked her, the girl literally had killing tools strapped to her wrists in the place of hands, and she made absolutely no effort to defend herself. Her only defenses against the Devil at the beginning are the quality of her tears, for God’s sake, and her pure (read: pre-sexual) soul.

What made it worse was that the play was technically flawless. The actors were fantastic, the set design is lovely, and the music was haunting and eerie and outstanding. This is a lot of superlatives, but I want you to understand how thoroughly they manage to immerse you in this terrible world.

All the reviews I’ve read seemed to love the play, and none of them mentioned any of this stuff, so I have to assume I’m missing something. Maybe I just don’t go to enough plays.

“Well…” Michele said, after we left the theater last night. “We’ve certainly been cultured tonight.”

“Culture has smacked us across the face,” I agreed. “Like a crazy drunk.”

If that sounds good to you, by all means check it out. And if none of the above stuff will bother you, I can certainly recommend this, because it really is a gorgeous production. But for the rest of you, maybe wait until Hamlet is in town again.

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