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Very often with a new play, a critic's few words of encouragement are intended as consolation for an idea that never really went anywhere, and that has little hope of really becoming something. "body/Body: Aphrodite Raves" is far from that. This is a show with a real heart and soul, and genuine conviction that it can serve to empower women against absurd social expectations of how their bodies should be, can help them heal from the emotional injuries those expectations cause, and can prevent the next generation from being damaged and demeaned by them. This project (it is experienced in several media) is not finished, and needs some work, but it's smart, genuine and powerful, and after some final finish it deserves a wide audience of both women and men.
The presentation is in three parts. It's billed as a "multi-media" event, but it would be more correct to call it an "intermittent media" event, since the media are discrete and never really occur simultaneously.
The first is a lobby exhibition of photographs by Amanda Koster. In an event called "Take Back Our Bodies", a diverse group of women got naked and posed for the photographer. The results are beautiful. Women who are thin, heavy, tall, short, in motion, standing still, together and alone. They are beautifully photographed and profoundly accessible. Most importantly, the photographs act as a mirror for the viewer, not only showing us how women look, but how we look at them. It is with those self-identified sets of biases that we enter into the theatrical production.
Before the play, set in a beauty shop (excellent design by D'Arcy Harrison), several televisions display a random set of media images of "correct" female beauty. It's a good idea, but the video could be more focused and stronger. As it is, it feels too much like just flipping through the channels, and doesn't really reinforce the constant barrage of messages that only a single, sexualized, impossible female body type is acceptable.
The play begins with the second medium, a documentary film by Kathyln Albright, in which she interviews women from the photo session about their experience of their own bodies. It's funny, moving, engaging material, and in their small confessions and intimate stories of what being "wrong" has cost them, we recognize just how profound the damage is of this self-debasing constraint. From first recognitions of being female, to exclusion and rejection on the basis of physical type, to various sexual abuses and rejections, to simply needing to feel like it was alright to be the women they are, this film speaks only truth, and it is in their words, in the strength or tremors of the voice, and in their body-language that we know that truth.
The third element is Vanessa McGrady's play, a serio-comic story of one woman's journey through the land of making peace with being herself. The first scene is an absurdist bit where an apparent birth, aided by a heartless doctor and the use of various kitchen implements, turns out to be a ruse, related but considerably less significant. As an opening it doesn't really work, not because it isn't funny or relevant, but because it's stylistically inconsistent with the rest of the play.
More effective is the next scene, where Eve, a beautician, has a nasty, hurtful argument with her mother, who has used plastic surgery to gain social advantage, and can't understand why Eve won't just "fix" herself so she can attract a husband. As Eve, Kristal Thomas is terrific. From that first cruel and authentic scene, through her excruciating breakup with her boyfriend when he admits he's lost interest because she's gained pounds, to the terrible revelation of why that's happened, to her encounters with women as diverse as fellow cheerleaders and a double Ph.D. stripper, she engages us with everyone in her life, while making her personal struggle meaningful and affecting. The men she encounters are not all insensitive chauvinists (thank heavens!). Both Mike Grimshaw, as a barrista who really cares about her, and Patrick Meehan, as the boyfriend whose reasons for leaving were not as simple as they first appeared, do excellent work. Erica Evans, as the financially desperate stripper was also quite good. The final scene, in which the goddess Aphrodite herself expresses her anger at how narrow our definition of beauty has become, is well-played by Kate Jaeger, but is written a bit too didactically, and comes off more as essay than an embodied reaction. Having the playwright herself on-stage at the end is also a dubious choice, mostly because it seems to apologize and to recant what has already been entirely supported.
Some inter-scene bits where three actors come out and perform jingles for various food and beauty products are both obvious and unnecessary. The point has already been made in the pre-show video, and they only serve to distract and interrupt from the play.
If it seems like I have a lot of criticisms, it's because I think the many parts of this show that really work are so powerful and important. Eve Ensler, with "The Vagina Monologues" has shown how wide an audience there is for intelligent discussion of this self-defining, and self-defeating, distortion of how women should look, and how they should feel about themselves. Playwright Vanessa McGrady is not as accomplished or sophisticated a writer as Eve Ensler, but she has every bit as much passion and integrity. Like the women of this play and presentation, her work needs to emerge into its own strength and assertion, free of any compromise or pre-conception, and beautiful in its distinctive, unique being.
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