Feminism 101

Damesrocket's Latest Production Is Burdened By The Educational Mission Of The Script.
By Margaret Regan 

BACK IN COLLEGE, a fervently feminist friend of mine named Maureen led a rebellion in an early gender studies class.

Most of her fellow students were relatively sophisticated about the subject already, and eager to forge ahead into the brave new world of feminist scholarship. But there was one jock guy who wanted to bring the discussion back to the Dark Ages. His idea of a good question to ponder: Could women ever truly be equal to men?

Right away Maureen insisted on a vote. The jock lost in a landslide. His fellow students booted him out of the class.

I was reminded of this oddly satisfying episode, which nowadays probably would have landed Maureen in litigation, by the play Dream of a Common Language, the Damesrocket production that inaugurates Theater Congress, the latest reincarnation of the old a.k.a. Theatre. The play, a 1992 feminist work by Heather McDonald, is a well-meaning exploration of the many ways the culture conspires to prevent women artists from doing their best work. It takes place a century ago, among a gaggle of artists in a French country house on the eve of the Impressionist revolution.

Not surprisingly, the two male painters in the story are as stupid as that hapless collegiate jock. Trouble is, while my friend Maureen wouldn't have given these dunderheads the time of day, McDonald has her female characters patiently try to explain the score. Again and again, in tedious fashion, the script reiterates ideas that are admirable but wholly self-evident: Women need training in art if they are to succeed as artists, women are held back if they are held wholly responsible for the family and home, and so on. This might have been news to 19th-century men, but it isn't nowadays. Women's history deserves to be ferreted out and retold, but unfortunately, McDonald's play doesn't make the old insights fresh for a contemporary audience.

The dunderheads in question are Victor (Joe McGrath) and Marc (Edward J. Wheeler), incipient Impressionists about to open Le Salon des Refusés. This real-life 1874 exhibition displayed work turned down by the official French Academy; it amounted to the shot heard round the world in modernist art. Victor and Marc are visionary radicals whose have astonishing new ways of seeing light and color.

Make that radicals in some spheres only. They're as reactionary as the bourgeois academicians they loathe when it comes to women. They studied with women artists, befriended women artists and they're in love with a woman artist, Clovis (Caroline Reed). Victor is even married to her. They nevertheless can't imagine a great woman painter. Men are artists, they believe, women mere illustrators. The pair of them have organized a dinner of artists to plan the big groundbreaking exhibition, but they have declared there's no room at the table for women.

When the fragile Clovis learns she's to be excluded from the dinner, she falls even deeper into the despair that has gripped her since she married. She has more or less given up painting in favor of one those peculiarly 19th-century female neuroses. She's exhausted all the time, wanders in the woods and can't seem to notice her own child (Klaus Collins).

Her only refuge is the friendship of women. Her friend Pola (Elizabeth Hunt) was once an aspiring painter too, but she's transformed herself into an eccentric traveling lady botanist-artist, another peculiarly 19th-century creation. And then there's Clovis' household companion, Dolores (Agatha Metta), a fiery, imaginative Spaniard. These three women stage an alternative dinner in the garden, with food pilfered from the men, and it's only then that they find their true, wild selves.

The play, directed by Mitch Goddard, has gotten a handsome, if simple, production, and it's punctuated by some arresting poetic moments, especially the joyful scene when the women dance under the stars. But the actors are burdened by the educational mission of the script. Hunt and Metta provide some lively moments, but Reed, a fine actor, is mostly reduced to wailing and whimpering. For wild-eyed painterly radicals, the men are strangely tepid.

There's a welcome surprise ending that's downright explosive, but during the long, slow scenes beforehand I found myself longing for Maureen's militancy. It surely wouldn't have taken her a whole play to shake these men up. TW

Dream of a Common Language continues for two weekends through Saturday, May 24, at Theater Congress, 125 E. Congress St. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, May 15 through 18; and Thursday through Saturday, May 22 through 24. Tickets are $10, with a $2 discount for students and seniors. The show on Sunday, May 18, is a pay-what-you-can performance. The play contains male and female nudity. For more information or reservations, call 623-7852.

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