Published in KPBS On Air Magazine May 1992

“The great question,” said Sigmund Freud, “that has never been answered:   What does a woman want?”   This month, theatergoers will be getting a satirical answer and a political one, one view from the past and one from the present. The old view comes from “The Women”, written in 1936; the new view is “A… My Name is Still Alice”.  

On the surface, “The Women”, written by socialite-diplomat-journalist Clare Boothe Luce, might look like a retro-vision of women. It shows the worst of the gender: bitchy, backbiting, man-crazy. So why would the acclaimed director Anne Bogart, known for her outré productions, choose to come to the San Diego Repertory Theatre (May 20-June 6) for “The Women”?  

“”It’s a play I’ve wanted to do for ages,” she says.   “It’s extremely relevant in this era of post-feminist malaise… In a politically correct world, I normally wouldn’t do this play.   But what I see around me is vaguely reminiscent of this piece.   By dredging it up, maybe something will happen.”

There are 40 female characters in “The Women” (to be played here by 16 actresses).   The plot is slight:   Mary loses her husband to a young temptress, obtains a divorce, regrets it and, in the end, will do anything to get her man back. It’s a scathing indictment of female narcissism and frivolity.  

“It’s a very volatile play,” says Bogart. “About very rich white women who are so frustrated with their lives, they take it out on each other. There’s something true about it today, too.”

And true to form, Bogart isn’t playing it quite straight. “Instead of some nineties soap-opera-ish white women, we looked for gritty women. We’ve cast it multiculturally.” She had plenty of actors to choose from; when the Rep put out a coast-to-coast casting call, they got 2500 applications. “With people of various ethnicities, something will undoubtedly happen,” says Bogart. “The piece is about bitchiness, but played with such love that something else will come out.”

Bogart, current president of the Theatre Communications Group (national organization for non-profit professional theaters), is about to branch out cross-culturally: With Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki, she’s starting the Saratoga International Theatre Institute this summer, in upstate New York .   It will be of a company of international actors, focused on new pieces and cultural exchange.   “The world has changed,” she says.   “World culture has to change, too.”

Part of that change is a growing core of women directors. “I happen to think they’re better than men,” Bogart admits. “They deal with actors well, they have a wider vision. But some are scared because of the world we live in.”

Two who aren’t scared are film director Joan Micklin Silver and stage director Julianne Boyd. In 1984, they co-conceived and directed a successful women’s revue, “A.. My Name is Alice ” (which won an Outer Critics’ Circle Award Off-Broadway, and appeared at the Old Globe in 1989).

“We were tired of the angry feminist scene,” says Boyd.   “We tried to do a musical revue where women could laugh at their foibles. It was a light-hearted celebration of women… But times have changed. The past year made us very aware that women had something else to say. After the Thomas/Hill hearings, talk of the Glass Ceiling.   The danger of Roe v. Wade being overturned. The more-than-uncertain future of the Equal Rights Amendment.”

So Boyd and Silver went back to their 28 writers and asked them to do it again.   The result is “A… My Name is Still Alice”, another collection of songs and skits about women (which has its world premiere at the Old Globe, May 14-June 21).

“The first one was funnier,” Boyd admits. “But this is a more serious time. The emotions are higher because the stakes are higher…   It became more difficult to be funny because there’s so much pain. This one’s a little more on the edge politically, but we’re still having fun with women trying to deal with their problems.”

As “ Alice ” sees it, women’s current problems, both serious and funny, include:   dieting, self-help books, AIDS, the Mommy Track, the good ole days of sexual freedom. The writers (27 of the original 28 are back) are just about evenly split between men and women. “This is not a man-woman thing,” says Boyd. “But there are certain men who couldn’t write for this.   We picked our men carefully.   That’s one of the lessons of life…   There’s no man-bashing here.   We’re just trying to say that we want to be defined by ourselves, not by the media or by men.   Feminism has been given a negative connotation by the press.   What it really means is someone interested in women’s issues. You’d have to be brain-dead not to be a feminist.”

The feminist views of “ Alice One” are still popular; the revue has played all over the country.   Four of the five original New York cast members will appear in San Diego …   Could this go on forever?

“We’re already planning “Alice 2000”,” says Boyd, with a laugh.   “If we’re not too old by then.   We’re trying to chronicle what women are thinking in the last twenty years of our century.”   In his wildest dreams, Uncle Sigmund never imagined a musical answer to his timeless question.

©1992 Patté Productions Inc.