3.5 out of 4 stars
Which word do you find less offensive, rape or sexual assault? Do semantics really matter when the action speaks for itself? In today’s world, cultural definitions are being challenged as the female voice is finally rising up after years of being filled with fear and anxiety. Circle Theatre’s world premiere The Condition of Femme is an exploration of rape culture based on actual events in the lives of sexual assault survivors interviewed by playwright Lauren Marie Powell.
Reagan, a counselor for a sexual assault hotline, is the crux as the audience listens to 11 character monologues created from Powell’s interviewees. Reagan’s journey leaves behind her well-meaning naïveté and becomes a gentle guide to female-identified persons coping with violence. Powell’s writing wonderfully bookends sequences that hone in on the collective female voice in this powerful expose on sexual assault that pulls on the heartstrings. In portraying Reagan, Powell gives a commanding performance with such purposeful eye contact with each audience. This connection seems to mimic Reagan’s work listening to survivor’s heavily intimate stories. The audience patiently listens and joins Reagan as she packs away these stories, figuratively and literally. Jimmy Jagos conveys transitions in a simple, yet multi-dimensional scenic design of a small studio apartment littered with books and clothes. The back window framed by exposed brick doubles as a projection screen, which flash with quotes from the bible, shocking statistics and archived footage of sexual abuse, sexist propaganda and sexual objectification. Cody Jolly’s projection and video design brilliantly utilizes media as a tool to heighten this work and add a startling gravitas.
The choice of a 12 all-female cast powerfully cements that this work is aimed to open conversations about the issues plaguing America’s female identified population. Many women are not always equipped to understand when they have been assaulted, let alone able to advocate for themselves. Director Amanda Jane Long explains, “rape culture is a powerful means by which women+ are held subordinate through fear of sexual violence. While most men don’t rape, most women+ fear rape. This fear is Rape Culture’s legacy and it is woven into our history, limiting our behavior, rights and choices.” Betsy Bowman, as Joy, was particularly heart wrenching. Bowman’s character tackles virgin guilt and the lack of practical sexual education. By being forced into a sexual encounter and deciding to “laugh it off” is not only psychologically deflecting, but encouraging negative reactional behaviors for others by downplaying the horrible truth. Bowman’s body language of shifting in her seat and fidgeting with her hands while explaining leads her to a realization and acceptance that is relatable to many women and their comprehension or journey with their own encounters. Gia, a feisty and confrontational woman, is portrayed by the wonderful Nikkia Tyler. Tyler’s voice and attitude convey a power that reflects another tactic with handling aggressors. Her performance illustrates that regardless the confidence you may possess, it does not exclude you from the deep fear of potential reactions your defiant words may cause.
Also Margi Hazlett’s subtle, yet provoking costuming design is well-construed. Black clothing is a major theme in Reagan’s wardrobe and makes one think of either funerals or seriousness. Both which can be taken hand in hand, when thinking of the countless movements that have cropped up over the years. In today’s world where high ranking men are being accused of sexual misconduct all across the nation in all mediums, this play is more important now than ever. The Time’s Up movement, MeToo, and countless others have sparked the female voice and the multi-faceted beast that is sexual assault is finally getting the attention it deserves; the attention that will spark change for this toxic culture. Circle Theatre Artistic Director Nicholas Reinhart says, “the breadth of Lauren’s examination of sexual assault was one of the things that motivated us to produce her script. We believe this play will not only be powerful theatre, but will also deepen our audience’s understanding of this societal problem that has only recently come to light in a big way.”
The production engages a broad audience. The themes only touch on a small fraction of circumstances like religion, virgin guilt, workplace harassment and just being a female minding your own business. Those silenced by their circumstances like Zoey Wendorf’s portrayal of transgender Isabella or Michelle Bester’s character Mae having a witness to her assault. All those who identify as femme has this shared experience as a gender to a varying degree or are witness to it. This production transcends into an emotionally wrought space told through a compiled narrative of many, many women+. All are valid. All deserve to be heard. The culture needs to change. We, as a society, need to change…and do better.
The Condition of Femme is now playing through April 1st at the Buena, Pride Arts Center, 4147 N. Broadway, Chicago. For more information and tickets, please visit www.circletheatrechicago.org
Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with a B.A. in English and a B.A. in Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!