Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Review: Women Fighting Back, in Many Glorious Ways

By Ed Malin

Carnival Girls Productions is currently presenting The Werewolf of Washington Heights by Christie Perfetti Williams at The Kraine. Charmaine Broad directs. If you are familiar with the playwright’s work, such as An Appeal To The Woman Of The House, which gained a 2014 NY Innovative Theatre Award, you might be expecting a new slant on civil rights, with strong female characters.  Joy: the new, intriguing play features an all-female cast (even the dance of the werewolves is all-female, as are the empowering quotes from Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham) who are struggling to overcome the many challenges to women and other persecuted groups in the somewhat grim year 2020 C.E.
It is New York City just three years from now, with the skyscrapers and the big election looming.  You might not recognize the place (realtors now refer to “Washington Heights” as “Hudson Heights”…“because, you know, white people”).  It’s a world where the public libraries have been closed. There are no more independent theaters, public broadcasting, Pulitzer prizes or non-state journalism. The Patriot Mandate (PAT) ensures the public may only access government-approved information.  Said government is at war, as usual. Immigrants have chip implants and, if they have a criminal record, a visible red tattoo with their PAT number.  The main characters muse “who wants to be Jewish these days.”  The polarization between good and bad is keenly felt, but teenage Maggie Tressider (Pilar Gonzalez), who was born shortly after the September 11th, 2001 attacks, notes that she finds non-committal (“beige”) people kind of boring.  Maggie and her twin sister Mary live with their surgeon mother, Isadora/Izzy (Galit Sperling) and Izzy’s Dominican wife Violet Corona (Stephanie Arnette Johnson) and their aged matriarch, Imogene Tressider (Rosina Fernhof).  Life for the twin girls started with Maggie winding the umbilical cord around Mary in the womb, then a hasty surgical intervention.  It’s what Maggie refers to as a Greek tragedy, and, if you choose to see the sisters as the archetypical Virgin/Magdalene pair, then you might expect them to fulfill such destinies.  However, one recent night both sisters stayed out past curfew and only Maggie was found.  This unusual occurrence for the “perfect” Mary threatens to add even more destabilization to her whole family.  Aunt Trudy Tressider (Melanie Ryan) from New Jersey starts a GoFundMe campaign but can barely keep track of which color ribbon to wear in support of which type of social ill. And then a pair of journalists come to interview everyone who knew Mary.
Delia Bumbah (Lori Funk) and Iranian-American camerawoman Amira Kilo (Sheila Joon Ostdazim) have their hands full listening to Maggie, Izzy, Violet, Imogene and their neighbor Junie Dorsey (Arlene A. McGruder).  Maggie is bipolar, or acts accordingly, and can track women by the smell of menstruation.  Violet, who came to the USA illegally twenty years ago, has chosen to stay and be surveilled rather than being deported or fighting in the current war. Junie’s daughter disappeared a few years ago, but Junie alleges that her daughter’s skin color and illegal behavior made her someone the police did not feel obligated to look for.  The family speculates as to how women can stay safe in this world, to which Imogene, who believes everyone thinks she’s crazy but is determined to add this to the list of things she has survived, replies: “Well, that’s why we travel in packs. Like wolves. Don’t believe for a second that women don’t take care of other women. Our species wouldn’t have survived without shared breasts for suckling and midwives for birthing.”  This is definitely one of the more coherent things Imogene says.  Imogene also implies that there are male werewolves prowling about, those who watch Fox News and give in to xenophobia and misogyny.  But whose version of the story can we trust?  Did Mary get involved with an anti-government group named after the Biblical Ephesians 6:12?  Is Violet having an affair?  Will the interview yield enough useful information?  After the play ended, and I pulled my jaw back up off the floor, I resolved not to tell anyone who hasn’t seen the show what transpired.  I can, however, offer an inscrutable riddle. If a young woman is prone to rebel against her mother, and she has two very different mothers, amidst a deteriorating society, what might she be likely to do next? 
photo by Cathleen Dwyer
Director Charmaine Broad has really outdone anything I’ve seen on stage this year. The non-stop action takes place in one urban apartment, in which characters sometimes break the walls of the scene.  It’s a radical way to constantly re-route the action.  Aided by Helen Blash’s lighting design, flashbacks intrude into most scenes, pleasantly halting the overly focused interview segments to offer new perspectives.  Pilar Gonzalez as Maggie and Rosina Fernhof as Imogene are great choices for the youngest and oldest characters.  One has escaped from Germany and has apparently seen much worse, while the other believes she can do anything.  Lori Funk as Delia Bumbah and Sheila Joon Ostdazim play the bemused news team to perfection, making me wonder what I would do if I had to get to the bottom of this family. Melanie Ryan as Trudy plays her character as quite sexy, while slowly revealing her many past and present dark secrets.  Everywhere, the power of women emerges as wolf and moon power.  Jessica Carlson and Hannah Matheny give a surprising werewolf dance, choreographed by Anissa Barbato and masked by Tanya Bernardson.  While Galit Sperling as Izzy has clearly been through enough, including raising two girls with no help from their “father”, the play thankfully gives voice to those who live under police scrutiny. Stephanie Arnette Johnson as Violet proves to be the keeper of more secrets than Maggie or Trudy.  reminded that in only a short amount of time, things could get even worse for the likes of Violet, Julie and Amira. Fortunately, Violet has a great public defender named Nasreen (Zarra Kaahn) in her corner.  This play proves to be much more than a cautionary tale.  While the characters all have more on their minds than the 2020 election, all of us should know we don't have that luxury