By Matt Hickman
About 25 minutes into ‘The Old Woman Who Lost Her Voice’, the plot becomes so trite, cliché and even boring that a discerning theatrephile might begin to wonder whether they’ll even be able to make it to curtain call.
It’s at that moment when along comes a sudden, surprising — even violent — whiplash that takes the play into a realm of hyper-postmodernism splashed with fresh angles of color and insight that transform it into a piece of art and commentary unique and refreshing.
To say any more than that would be to spoil the surprise, so suffice it to say, ‘The Old Woman Who Lost Her Voice’, which goes into its final weekend of shows July 4-7 at Cyrano’s Playhouse, is a fiercely feminist take on fractured fairy tales that is mellifluously meta.
“It’s very fun to watch live,” said playwright Jill Bess, whose done much of her previous work with the Last Frontier Theater Company and Out North Theater, and who teams up with RKP Productions for her latest. “I think theater has to be exciting; has to challenge an audience. I think my job as a playwright is to challenge the status quo and question things.”
‘The Old Woman Who Lost Her Voice’ centers around an aging woman named Galena, played by Jacqueline Hoffman in her current state, and in her younger years through dreamscape storytelling by Masey Steele and later, Madeline Klever, who carries her character into middle age.
From her rocking chair, the Galena that exists in the waking state is suffering from lockjaw. When she calls her doctor, played by Carl Bright, who dons the role of numerous other mansplaining douchebags in Galena’s life, he tells her her jaw is probably stiff from her “talking too much,” which sets in place the play’s moral — that women down through the ages have suffered in, if not forced, then strongly suggested silence that can manifest itself karmically — if not medically — in the condition of trismus, better known as lockjaw.
“In terms of going back to tell the story, I looked to personal experience, and the experiences of friends, sisters, some of those pieces are part of the story,” Bess said. “(It’s about) how we, as women, silence ourselves. There’s an unspoken societal thing where we, as women, we try to keep the peace, and how women silence themselves and it sort of built from there.”
Lockjaw, as a plot device, came very literally from Bess’ own life. Three years ago, she suffered through a case of trismus, which was the result of complications from a dental procedure. As she convalesced, eating only ‘thinly sliced watermelon and Lay’s thinly sliced potato chips and Ben & Jerry’s Cookie Dough ice cream,’ the idea of a woman being told for years to keep her mouth shut could manifest itself in a very real and painful medical condition, at least allegorically.
“My acupuncturist was the only person able to help me with that. When she said to me, ‘it will feel like no one is listening to you,’ that bursting of tears, those tears flowing is when I felt myself start to heal,” Bess said. “I really am a believer. I’m not saying that’s what happened (medically) — my case was triggered when I went to the dentist and my jaw was left open too long, along with other issues, but it became a symbol of what I went through — emotionally a symbol to face those things. We’re very whole beings and our emotional health certainly contributes to our physical health.”
Klever said the line ‘you women talk too much,’ when uttered by the male narrator telling Galena’s story in the more traditional fairy tale format of the first act, served as the play’s theme throughout.
“When he says, ‘you women talk too much,’ Jill had cut out the line (from the female narrator), ‘no matter how much we talk you don’t listen. But actually, we really liked it and asked her to put it back in,” Klever said. “It really hit me. It’s important to not be too much, too preachy, too in-your-face, and we don’t want to lead people by the hand, but it was poignant.”
Bess has no objection to considering her play a ‘feminist fairy tale’, but it isn’t meant to pit women against men. Elements in the story, such as when Galena’s husband, played by Tai Yen Kim, loses his job and finds himself emasculated and similarly silenced, go to show that this karmic lockjaw isn’t gender-specific so much as it’s gender-role specific.
“I did not want it to be male vs. female,” Bess said. “I hope people see that she’s told keep quiet by women, too. She has a really tough female boss, her daughter silences her and she silences herself. It’s all these ways we feel people don’t want to listen to us. It’s not about men vs. women, it’s time to really listen to each other.”
Boogie Willis, steps into the roles of Ms. Strickland, Galena’s boss bitch from the publishing world, and plays the role of Galena’s resentful daughter, the play’s only character who exists in both the current world and the flashback world.
Willis totes the most roles in the cast, and the roles that require the greatest range, a major step forward for the local actress who got her start in theater on whim after seeing auditions for a VPA production of the Wizard of Oz seven years ago.
In addition to its social commentary, ‘The Old Woman Who Lost Her Voice’, is a commentary on the role of fairy tales in our lives, as well. Again, without giving too much away about the plot departure, it makes the interesting assertion that the need for fairy tales to end ‘happily ever after’, are not Pollyanna in nature, but rather decidedly masculine.
“Traditionally, if you go back and listen to a lot of Disney things you hear a male voice telling you the story,” Bess said. “I was brought up on fairy tales and I love fairy tales; it’s a way of playing with the way our world is changing.”
Klever said she grew up adoring fairy tales, too.
“It’s interesting because it’s something we’re so used to, growing up on fairy tales — I did, Jill did,” Klever said. “Deep down, maybe this is (Galena’s) 101st fairy tale she’s heard where they kiss and it’s happily ever after, the man comes in and it’s fine. But maybe this time she said ‘no’, or maybe this time the story is about something she can relate to so much she doesn’t want it to end; wants to make it real about their flaws that come between all of the good moments. She wants it to be real rather than nice this time.”
In the apex of the magical Alaskan summer, folks may not want to be cooped up in a dark theater, but with so much daylight to spare, spending an hour-and-a-half with the cast and crew of ‘The Old Woman Who Lost Her Voice’ is well worth the investment.
“It’s so taboo to do theater in the summertime in Alaska, I was a little apprehensive, but when I saw the script, I said, ‘yes, to heck with the summertime,’” Klever said. “I think it’s very powerful and important. I just saw my best friend sobbing after she saw it. It’s a good feeling to see people experience the same reality I think we’re portraying. It’s not quite magical realism, but maybe it’s adjacent.”
‘The Old Woman Who Lost Her Voice’ plays at 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday night with a closing Sunday matinee at 3 p.m.
For tickets and information, visit www.cyranos.org.