Women Laughing Alone With Salad
Never have I stopped taking notes at a play because I’ve decided not to write a review – only to change my mind and write a review. Never have I contacted a company to tell them that I declined to review – only to change my mind and write a review. Never have I attended a play that I’ve held the production in such high esteem and the play itself with such ambivalence. And never have I considered writing a review more as a personal reflection.
The cause of my internal conflict is Women Laughing Alone With Salad, a raucous/farcical/campy play inspired by an Internet meme (self-explanatory, per the title), written by Sheila Callaghan, and presented by Shotgun Players. The company’s admirable recent productions include White, Iron Shoes, and Kiss, all of which are provocative and entertaining and targeted at discriminating and sometimes adventurous audiences. Let me note that while some of the audience for Women Laughing… left at intermission and others seemed unamused throughout, I believe a majority showed support and laughed along.
The acting in the play is superb. Three actresses represent three archetypes of women. Sango Tajima is the petite one who wants to satisfy the needs of her boyfriend and exhibits high energy and a lascivious tongue faster than a chameleon at a cricket convention. Regina Morones is the writhing voluptuous one who celebrates her sexuality and then becomes antagonistic. Melanie Dupuy is the older one, obsessed with beauty treatments to a masochistic extent. Of course, what binds them is their devotion to salad, which they devour with gusto (I was going to say with relish, but that might be confusing). Caleb Cabrera is totally attuned as the boyfriend, pick-up artist, and son, who lives for his own gratification. Note that in Act 2, the players reverse genders, which is pretty funny and satisfying.
The production values are equally strong. Stage design is built around multiple projection screens that are effectively used largely to show marketing campaigns and women’s glee at eating salad. Lighting and sound are both dramatic and add sizzle.
Nominally, the central theme of Women Laughing… concerns a very important issue – the objectification that women face from a male dominated society and their yearning to satisfy physical models determined by men. That goal is largely achieved in an absurdist fashion by silly salad eating scenes; the marketing campaign for a body shaping dietary supplement; and the sole male character’s obsession with sex and women’s shapes (even his own mother’s – hmmm.) But the misogyny that is supposed to be assailed seems to be largely unpunished.
So here comes the rub. The script is replete with graphic language and gesticulations about oral and anal sex, genitals, and more. A three-way sex orgy is enacted among two females and the male (while clothed.) Admittedly, the choreography of the scene is outstanding, and it is pretty funny, but what’s the point? If there aren’t better exemplars of male dominance in society than bedroom sex, the concept lacks vigor.
In finding graphic elements of the play to be inappropriate, I thought maybe I’m just being a prude. But then I recalled. I’ve been to Thrillpeddlers (RIP) twice and to D’Arcy Dollinger and Heklina offerings more than once. Back in the day, I saw Behind the Green Door and The Devil in Miss Jones at movie theaters, so I can’t be that moralistic. Then I realized that this is all about expectation. If you go to the Oasis in San Francisco, graphic language and sexual simulation might be exactly what you hope for. At a house of culture, maybe not.
But what may be at stake here is competition over the social divide between older and younger, traditional and edgy. Younger, and particularly coastal, people are more casual about sex and discussing it openly, explicitly, and with graphic terminology. Overall, more aspects of their lives are more integrated. For instance, work and the cell phone seem to follow them everywhere. Privacy is less private. The older generation is generally more compartmentalized. We’re more likely to want our escapes to be escapes and to want our culture to be cultured. I rue the day when situational behaviors disappear, and it is okay to use cell phones and go to the concession stand during a theatrical performance.
Perhaps treatments like Women Laughing… are the wave of the future. If so, is the trivialization of sex and communication about it another marker in the path toward a panem et circenses society?
Women Laughing Alone with Salad by Sheila Callaghan is produced by Shotgun Players and is performed at Ashby Stage, 1900 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, CA, through November 11, 2018.