At The Boston Playwrights’ Theater
Reviewed by David Curcio
Laura Neubauer’s new play Miss Penitentiary at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre is a heavy-handed briefing on Feminism 101. As a crash course in women’s subjugation and objectification, its target audience seems to be those who cling to the beauty ideals found in magazines like In Shape or Penthouse, which is to say no one who would see this play in the first place.
In an unspecified time, a bleak prison holds an unspecified number of female inmates, portrayed here by five charismatic, likable actors. While Orange is the New Black has brought women’s prison out of the age of 70s exploitation films, there is something unsettling in our heroines’ incarceration, as if a sinister, Handmaid’s Tale-like patriarchy may be behind this. But the absence of men is palpable. The program informs us that the only crimes committed were being born female: “A prison of insecurities built by and for the women.” (Right off the bat this is a little more background reading than a play should require.)
As the prison’s annual beauty pageant approaches, one lucky winner will go free. Here is where the tropes of sexism, objectification and the commodity of beauty are forced upon the inmates (and, in turn, the audience). As the actors don masks, Greek chorus-like, and drone such phrases as “Our looks have an expiration” or (regarding new shoes), “Harden your feet and harden your heart,” we are reminded at every turn of the mundane, superficial trappings of Beauty.
On a stage comprised of a bare wooden floor with black tape fanning out to describe the prison bars’ shadows in receding one-point perspective, the older, lean, mean Mama Beast presides over the four other girls, some of whom are up for parole. We never learn where this eligibility comes from or why others are lifers, but then not much is clear here. The play opens as the women languidly scrub the floors (you almost expect them to burst into “It’s the Hard Knock Life”) and suddenly everyone is in a tizzy over the approaching pageant. Time to get pretty and, like cigarettes, lipstick, rub-on tans, and even body parts (e.g. teeth that have been knocked out in brawls) become a commodity. The pre-game competition is on.
The lingering question is just who the judges are. We’re all familiar to some extent with the standard format of a beauty contest, and our participants play to it well as vapid questions and advice rain down upon them in preparation from the chorus. There is the obligatory talent section, that half-assed acknowledgement of the mind behind the face, although here (and, we assume, in all pageants) the question is “But do you look good when you’re doing it?” along with the maxim to stay away from such un-sexy work as business and accounting. Sage advice for women’s continued subjugation in the workplace. An amalgamation of advertisements, expectations and disappointments is put in the bluntest of terms where the stakes are highest: if you want to win, you’d better know your place.
The inmate Fanny (played with humor and a tangible humanity by Caitlin Gjerdrum) is a lesbian, a drug addict, and illiterate, who begins taking reading lessons from her lover DD. As she prattles on about a divide within herself (queer/straight; drugged/sober) she hones into the revelation that her intellect may in fact save her in this battle centered on lipstick, hair wax, and “jelly tits.” It’s like an invisible hand emerges from the stage to whack the audience over the head with feminism’s most basic tenet.
So we leave knowing what we knew before: Naomi Wolf was right about the undue pressures of beauty placed upon women and that pageants are meaningless if you have to look good while showing off your “talents.” As the chorus warns “Be careful who you trust. You can trust us, but you probably shouldn’t,” the familiar, insidious message to stay pretty, pay attention to everything but trust no one (advertising, boyfriends, husbands, and especially other women) is reasserted. As this warning comes to fruition, the crown goes to Fanny, the least superficially feminine of the lot, who in turn passes it on to DD. Although women are looking out for each other and forced competition is rejected, the whole charade ultimately devolves into a massive catfight – over what it is unclear, for the pageant has ended. Perhaps competition is already heating up for next year.
The not-for-profit Maiden Phoenix company should be lauded for its efforts to bring women’s stories “in the hopes of breaking down stereotypes” to Boston, and I for one am excited to see more of their productions. But with Miss Penitentiary some of us might just prefer to sit with Fanny as she finds larger life messages in Shel Silverstein, ignoring the hollow messages from on high that remind her to eat half grapefruit each morning and repeat her (obviously pointless) daily affirmations.
Miss Penitentiary is directed by Alyce Householter and runs from Oct. 2nd through 17th at The Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave., Boston. For more information visit maidenphoenix.org.