KPBS AIRDATE: MARCH 3, 2000
Feminism strikes back… in two plays that will make you squirm…one with discomfort, one with an uncontrollable desire to bolt from the theater. Kelly Stuart’s “Furious Blood” may make you angry at the patronizing, paternalistic ways of the world that haven’t changed since the time of the ancient Greeks. But Wendy Wasserstein’s “An American Daughter” will make you angry you didn’t spend your good money and three hours somewhere else.
Wasserstein is an overrated, quasi-feminist comic playwright who tries desperately to be taken seriously. This time, she attempts mixing gender politics with the Washingtonian type. Her 1996 play is set in the posh Georgetown home of a prominent gynecologist just nominated as Surgeon General. “An American Daughter” was inspired by the flap over Zoe Baird’s doomed bid to become U.S. Attorney General in 1993. As in that debacle, a minor infraction triggers a media frenzy, where loyalties, friendships and survival strategies are tested to the limit.
It’s an interesting premise, but Wasserstein doesn’t trust herself or her audience. Into the shark pool of political intrigue, she throws multiple red herrings, each of which flails around, bleeds a little and then pretty much dies: a suicidally infertile Jewish African American woman, a heartless right-wing gay man, a conservative Senatorial father and his fourth country-club wife, a neo-feminist vixen, an unfaithful husband and a cold-blooded TV newsman. Wasserstein has about six plays up there, and none of them works. The characters are cardboard, and the situations are ludicrous, often unmotivated or unresolved. The playwright herself comes off as a bitter, nasty cynic who takes gratuitous potshots at anything in her pop-psych worldview.
It isn’t easy to make this play likable, and the North Coast Repertory Theatre doesn’t succeed. The direction, like the play itself, is inconsistent in tone, most of the actors play one note, even the lighting and set design aren’t up to the theater’s usual standards. This is a middle-age, middle-brow, middling effort all around.
If you want to know what hip, young feminist women are thinking and doing, jet over to Sledgehammer Theatre, to see “Furious Blood,” another provocative production by t he most engaging estrogen alliance since Thelma and Louise: playwright Kelly Stuart and director Kirsten Brandt. This time, the demonic duo takes on the original dysfunctional family, the House of Atreus, initially conceived by Aeschylus and Euripides, with its domestic violence of mythic proportion.
As Stuart and Brandt see it, in the patriarchal mythos, Clytemnestra has always gotten a raw deal, because she killed her husband for murdering their firstborn, after which her other children killed her. “Furious Blood” is framed as a hyperactive memory play, wherein the beleaguered queen can never get over the sacrifice of her child in order to further her husband’s career. This makes her a credible character — powerful, principled (in her warped way), vengeful but far more admirable than that spineless Wasserstein woman. The queen is deliciously, sexily played by Jill Drexler, with Jessa Watson as her seductive younger self, and Tim West hilarious as the gilded, fig-leafed god Apollo. In the end, it’s a man’s world after all…but many of the women in the cast, especially the three Furies, are quite wonderful. Brandt’s muscular direction is beautiful to behold.
I’d opt, any time, for the wickedly wild, screechy, sometimes preachy, humorous, in-your-face feminism of “Furious Blood” over the seriously bloated, bogus, self-important, wishy-washy mishmash of “An American Daughter.” But these are liberated, enlightened times. You decide for yourself.
Out MUSIC: “RESPECT”
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.