Thursday, December 14, 2017

Review: Bioelectromagnetics As a Metaphor for Unleashing Women's Power

By Ed Malin

This December, Jody Christopherson’s new play AMP is running in repertory with her Greencard Wedding at HERE.  The play is directed by Isaac Byrne. Jody Christopherson, live onstage and in projected videos, portrays several unforgettable, electrifying characters from the 19th and 20th Centuries.
Electricity has an important role in life and death.  Italian scientist Luigi Galvani discovered in 1780 that an electric charge can make dead laboratory animals move their muscles.  He later tried that experiment on the corpse of an executed murderer, which also moved around.  Such discoveries and the political discourse of the Enlightenment fascinated the young Mary Godwin (Christopherson), daughter of author Mary Wollstonecraft and future wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.  In an age where other prominent authors such as Rousseau had voiced their belief in the equal intelligence of the sexes and benefits of educating women, Wollstonecraft published “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”.  Unfortunately, Wollstonecraft died shortly after the birth of her daughter, who found herself disliked by her new stepmother and challenged to defend her late mother’s work from less enlightened men.
 On the same stage where Mary has shown us some macabre scientific devices, such as shock-proof leather coveralls, operating tables and jars of noxious fluids, larger-than life projections fill in the rest of the story.  We also see a film of a mid-20th Century South Boston woman named Anna (Christopherson) who is trying to explain why she has ended up in a mental institution.  Anna studied cello and continually strove for recognition in a male-dominated field.  She is no delicate flower; in fact, her fisherman father taught her the best way to clean a fish. Even when she auditioned for the Boston Symphony—behind a screen—the judges still found a way to discriminate against her.  We see haunting images of Anna, strangely happy in a dilapidated asylum.   Anna’s unrepressible rage led to her imprisonment and to treatment with electroshock therapy.  Which brings us back to Mary.
photo by Hunter Canning
 In 1816, Mary Godwin, a.k.a Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, famously finds herself in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva in the company of her husband, Lord Byron, her step-sister Claire and Byron’s doctor, John Polidori.  The group of creative outsiders decide to write ghost stories.  Mary’s contribution is “Frankenstein”, the story of a monster, a term she explains through its etymology of showing what is inside.  Indeed, what happens when you combine pieces of different creatures and give the result new life?  What is inside of Anna after she receives sock treatment?  If she docile, or furious, or a bit of both?  A beautiful, Romantic cello soundtrack floats through it all, thanks to sound designer (and projection designer and producer) Martha Goode.  The Mary episodes include the vocal talents of J. Stephen Brantley, Chloe Dirksen, Finn Kilgore, Ryan McCurdy and Jonathan West.
This scary and enjoyable piece brings back a sense of wonder about monsters.  In the early 19th Century, Galvanism and other experiments with electricity seemed mystical.  Now, we know (and may have had some relatives who experienced such things firsthand) that electroshock therapy is not the way to treat illness.  How do we strive for equality without continually hurting women?  How hard is it for a progressive idea to flourish in this world?  Jody Christopherson gives us several believable performances.  Anna’s scrappy, South Boston accent is courtesy of dialect coach Chloe Dirksen.  Anna’s earnest longing for success is a fine achievement of director Isaac Byrne.  Stacey Boggs's lighting design sets up ghost stories the way they should be done. The sheer majesty of Mary wearing leather gear and screaming has stayed with me.  The production is enhanced by films shot by Michael Niederman and Erika Phoebus, directed by Isaac Byrne and Jody Christopherson and edited by Christophersen and Martha Goode. The films nicely transition from the long-ago world of 1816 to 1950s world which feels both real and somewhat removed. The establishing shots from a ruined asylum are by all accounts a triumph. So there we stand, looking back at ruinous ideas which ruined lives, and preparing to fight for women’s rights yet again.  I highly recommend AMP and am sure that if you like it you will like Greencard Wedding.