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Theater review: ‘The Secretaries,’ dir. Alyssa Karounos

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Those of us who menstruate are used to the pain, mood swings, and cravings that come along with it. For the women in “The Secretaries,” that time of the month also involves chainsaws and murder.

UW’s Undergraduate Theater Society describes its latest production as “a provocatively feminist play about body image, sexuality, sex, PMS, blood, and killing men.”

The story revolves around Patty Johnson (Emma Halliday), a new secretary at the Cooney Lumber Mill. Initially, she is thrilled to begin her new job and get to know the three other secretaries in the office, Ashley Elizabeth Frantangelo (Rayna Stackhouse), Peaches Martin (Sayre Thompson), and Dawn Midnight (Nina Williams), and their boss, Susan Curtis (Gracia Imboden).

Confusion replaces excitement as Patty realizes that workplace camaraderie includes synced menstrual cycles, a forced diet of SlimFast shakes, celibacy pledges, lingerie parties, and the monthly killing of a local lumberjack.

The all-female cast does an excellent job with the challenging story. Halliday portrays Patty’s initial innocence and lasting confusion quite well. Stackhouse exudes jealousy, sophistication, and superiority. Thompson makes the audience sympathize with Peaches’ weight concerns. Williams, who also plays Patty’s boyfriend, Buzz, excels at both innocent flirting and complete seduction. Imboden is especially impressive, easily switching from powerfully sexy to frighteningly intimidating.

That said, this play is not for everyone.

“The Secretaries” was written by The Five Lesbian Brothers, a group of female playwrights who aim to “create provocative lesbian theater for the masses through the fine feminist art of collaboration.” 

On their website, they write, “Our work … always tackles big themes such as internalized sexism and homophobia, the corrupting influence of corporate culture, sexual obsession. … We are equitable in our parody, skewering homosexuals and feminism with the same vigor we apply to mainstream culture, [and] the results are most often strikingly ‘politically incorrect.’” 

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“The Secretaries” attempts to skewer more than one play can handle. It criticizes both sexism and feminism, both dieting and weight gain, both heterosexuality and homosexuality, both consensual sex and sexual assault, leaving the audience unable to walk away with a clear message.

While the play satirizes PMS by having its characters kill a man every 29 days, it’s difficult to call the entire play satirical because of the more realistic events it also includes. Many lines and situations are genuinely funny, but there are also multiple scenes of sexual harassment and lack of consent. Some of these scenes are exaggerated (Susan unbuttoning Patty’s shirt in the middle of the office), while others are not (Dawn continually attempting to have sex with Patty despite her multiple protests).

Though its writers identify as feminist lesbians themselves, the show portrays this group as very predatory. Patty’s relationship with Buzz is much healthier than her encounters with Dawn. The female characters, especially Dawn and Susan, consistently overstep sexual boundaries. While trying to sleep with Patty, Dawn jokes that sex doesn’t count if it’s between two women, allowing both of them to deny the abusive nature of their relationship.

The program warns of “language, weapons, explicit sexual content, loud noises, mature content, [and] excessive use of blood,” but it’s the conflicting messages about feminism and sexuality that makes “The Secretaries” an overwhelming experience.

“The Secretaries” runs through May 1. It is one hour and 50 minutes long, with no intermission. The show’s designers, cast, and crew will be hosting “talkbacks” after the performances April 23 and April 30 to discuss the play with audience members.

The verdict: The multitude of messages in “The Secretaries” may be more intimidating than the blood and chainsaws.

 

Reach Specials Sections Editor Katie Anastas at arts@dailyuw.comTwitter: @KatieAnastas

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