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June 8, 2012

Bachelorette, on through July 1 at the Studio Theater, is a champagne, pill and coke-fuelled long night’s journey into revelation. The travellers are a trio of “hot” bachelorettes whose envy at the good fortune and happiness of their friend and unhappiness in their own lives bubbles up in increasingly corrosive ways. The play, the “gluttony” segment in a play series on the seven deadly sins, lays bare the forces that feed female self-loathing and insecurity and makes passive-aggression practically a blood sport.  Playwright Leslye Headlund manages to make witlessness hugely entertaining.  The horrifying cruelties and preoccupations of the privileged white women of Bachelorette might draw similar criticisms as those of HBO’s Girls, but that’s a comparison I’ll leave to those who have HBO.

Oddly, thinking about Bachelorette prompts me to sit down to write about an entirely different theatrical world, one navigated by the Lahore-based Ajoka Theatre Company.  It’s an odd pairing, but not totally inappropriate. On May 25th, the Atlantic Council hosted Ajoka’s founder and director, Shahid Nadeem, for a riveting lecture on activism and theatre and then a discussion of theatre’s socially transformative potential and what is required to achieve such potential (for description and audio excerpt: http://www.acus.org/event/activism-through-theater ).  The company, founded in 1984, provides free performances to audiences of diverse backgrounds throughout Pakistan, India, and elsewhere.  Their plays range from historical drama to satire to musical/dance theatre, and often draw threats and attacks for their treatment of politically charged issues such as the veiling of women, US policies in the region, dictatorship at home and abroad, and Muslim-Hindu relations. The company draws no government support for its productions, and faces continual violent attacks on its actors and performance spaces.

Bachelorette’s (and possibly Girls’) depictions of insecurities and anxieties around female empowerment, pleaure, and sexual currency suggest conditions of oppression that are certainly distant and differently felt from those Ajoka Theatre Company confront, but they are not wholly disconnected from them.  The audience is invited to sympathize with the maligned off-stage character of Becky and then to delight in her power over her reprehensible female friends, but I still felt a twinge of empathy for even the most vicious of them. Their unrestrained tearing at one another – aided by their intimate knowledge of each other’s vulnerabilities – seemed a symptom of a toxic mix of shame, envy and a false sexual empowerment.  The “gluttony” or excess depicted in the play is inseparable from the emotional and bodily self-control demanded of women by the arbiters of reputation, taste, and respect. But who and where are these arbiters? In our heads? In the heads of those around us?

Human dignity can be eroded in myriad ways: through more easily identifiable overt oppression, but also more insidiously by the trauma of past violations of trust and dignity, which can erupt in both destructive and self-destructive ways.  Bachelorette shows us how this can happen in intimate friendships and sexual liaisons, risking some audience alienation but sustaining a connection through humor.  Ajoka takes far greater risks with its plays (while also relying heavily on humor to engage its audience), and devotes tremendous energy to repairing the breaches of trust that have riven the communities in which it performs.  Ajoka makes a persuasive case for drama over drones!  Ajoka website: http://www.ajoka.org.pk/ajoka/theatre.asp

Stay tuned for another post about Forum’s magical production of The Illusion and Woolly Mammoth’s Mr. Burns and more!