“Consider the idea that offstage should be as visible to the audience as possible. The actors are another set of characters… If any vomiting, crying, or shouting needs to happen offstage, the audience should be able to glimpse it at the very least…There should be at least one female character (that should probably be played by a female actor) in every scene. If a woman has to get a bit naked at any point, then the men should get naked also to redress the balance…
Most importantly, this play should not be well-behaved.”
— Alice Birch, Stage Directions, Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.
Dallas — In 1976, a University of New Hampshire Ph.D. student named Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote a paper exploring the forgotten (or erased) history of ordinary, “virtuous” women in society, and in doing so, coined a phrase that would be slapped on bumper stickers, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and feminist memes ad nauseam: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” The phrasing’s shifted a bit over the years (the words “rarely” or “never” substituted in), and it’s been attributed to notable woman from all over the fame spectrum, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Marilyn Monroe and all the way back to Henry VIII’s doomed lover Anne Boleyn. But nevertheless, regardless of attribution, the quote persisted, and indeed was the catalyst for the creation of Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. In 2013, the Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned works from four female playwrights, including Alice Birch, to create pieces in response to the quote. Birch, after a deep dive into feminist literature, wrote Revolt in just three days. It was a hit for the RSC in 2014, made its American debut at the Soho Rep in 2016, and now makes its regional debut in Dallas at Second Thought Theatre. In a list of descriptors for Second Thought’s fearless, funny, lyrical production, “well-behaved” would be pretty near the bottom.
It’s strange in some ways to think that Revolt was written in 2013, since the spitting rage at its heart seems so suited to the mood of feminism in 2018, i.e., men are cancelled. But the focus of the piece is more on how inadequate language can be in expressing that rage, in transmitting thoughts to others in general really, with a specific focus on how men and women communicate (and how they fail to). Structurally, the play is a series of vignettes, initially accompanied with a projected mission statement on the theater space’s back wall (“Revolutionize the language. Invert it.”; “Revolutionize the world. Do not reproduce.”). These eventually give way to similar encomiums shouted through a loudspeaker. The scenes grow increasingly disjointed and frenetic, their dialogue dissolving into overlapping gibberish, before the play’s climactic implosion. There’s some superficial connective tissue between the scenes—references to bluebells abound, and watermelons, and potatoes, and being so damn tired—but for the most part, the scenes are linked by how little the players understand one another, and the rage, grief, and sheer exhaustion the misunderstandings cause.
Second Thought has assembled a stellar cast for what director Christie Vela admits was a terrifying proposition, and the actors prove themselves more than game throughout the play. The show is demanding, and raw, and per the stage directions, the actors are given a lot of interpretive freedom with the material—both a gift and a curse, one assumes. Vela herself performs in the piece, and her performance in the fourth vignette of the night—as a woman whose lifelong war with her body and its treatment at the hands of men and society at large have brought her to a very public breaking point—is gut-wrenching, and easily the most affecting and effective moment in the piece.
There are strong performances from the other female cast members as well. Jenny Ledel is a comedic powerhouse in the initial scene, which involves an attempt at male/female equality in dirty talk during sex (“I am blanketing and locking you and draining the life of you with my massive, structured, beautifully built, almighty vagina!”) that ends in disaster. In the play’s second vignette, portraying a proposal gone very, very wrong, Tia Laulusa invests the character with a steely resolve as she and her fiancé try and articulate what his proposal means to them both: “I just told you I loved you,” he says. “I want to have a life with you … I just said that I just wanted to commit to you.” “No,” she replies. “You essentially said you wanted to reduce your income tax.” Lydia Mackay has a lovely, serene turn as a woman attempting to explain to her boss why she will no longer be working on Mondays, as she wants more sleep, only to have the deeper meaning of her choice dissected and every possible insultingly wrong conclusion drawn as to her motives: “Is it cancer? Are you pregnant? Trying to get pregnant?”
As the play’s structure begins to break down, Ledel in particular maintains a tricky balance as the estranged daughter of a disinterested mother (Mackay) and herself the mother of a daughter (Laulusa) whose body is breaking down in the face of her unhappiness; the actors frequently break character to begin dialogue again, and to comment on the action as the internal reality of the play begins to fall apart. And finally, the sole male cast member, Max Hartman (a Kitchen Dog Theater mainstay), plays a series of befuddled males in the early scenes (managing to avoid them being completely interchangeable—quite the hat trick) before being literally banished from the stage, reappearing in the play’s final chaotic sequence with the rest of the cast as Mackay delivers what feels like the piece’s final assessment of the state of modern feminism: “I think I have been living on the principle of kindness and hope being enough and the thought being enough, but it turns out it isn’t; it turns out we stopped watching and checking and nurturing the thought to become the action.”
The stage environment is well-suited to uphold the playwright’s desire for radical transparency. In an all-white space, the audience is seated in tall thin bleacher seats set around the action, so all the actors entrances, exits, quick changes, etc., are clearly visible at all times. The sound and lighting design (credit to John Flores and Aaron Johansen, respectively) work seamlessly in conveying the mood of each scene. Especially impressive is the final onstage detonation, where a combination of projected images and sound and vibration produce a pretty credible sense that the world may in fact be ending.
What it all adds up to in the end is more than usually in the eye of the beholder with this incendiary piece. But whatever your politics, try not to miss Second Thought Theatre’s high-wire act production of it, where you’ll be treated to the spectacle of four women (and one man) who may be behaving badly, but who sure are acting beautifully.