Pictured: Jared Dennis and Jamie Bragg. Photo by Tom McGrath, TCMcG Photography.
By Bec Willett
A white woman with perfectly set hair and painted face smiles back at me. The italicized words beside her gleaming teeth are formed with the care of a company deliberately unsure of their product’s side effects: “Stay fit and Slim by taking Amphetamine.” It’s an image among many curated by dramaturg Nicole Hand that prefaces the performance of Promethean Theatre’s BLISS (OR EMILY POST IS DEAD!) by Jami Brandli, reminding us of exactly how the world was – not that long ago, and not that far from here.
In 1960 in North Orange, New Jersey, Clementine, Antonia and Maddy write letters to the mid-century matriarch of etiquette: Emily Post. Their letters are about crumpets, and boys and how to “write a letter to a man who isn’t my husband.” The words themselves are simple, but the underlying questions – those that second-guess the clear-cut rules for women of the time, aren’t. It’s into this world that Cassandra appears. In response to her refusal to have sex with him, Greek god Apollo has cursed Cassandra so that she can see the future but with the caveat that no one will ever believe her. In this particular cycle of the curse, she enters the white neighborhood of North Orange as a black woman. Yet this time, she not only has to deal with one ancient Greek reincarnation but three: the 1960s versions of Clytemnestra, Antigone, and Medea. Shortly after her arrival, each of their stories comes to a head, and Cassandra desperately tries to help them change their futures.
It sounds heavy, and while the subject matter is, Brandli’s writing simultaneously lightens and sharpens her sword with humor – a technique harnessed by this ensemble as they successfully straddle the symbolic Greek ideas within a Stepford wives reality. Jamie Bragg is especially masterful in her portrayal of Clementine, embodying a finessed cynicism grounded in hurt and betrayal, yet with still a sparkle of hope. While she seeks out a steamy yet gleeful romance with Dr. Smith (scaffolded with solid intimacy design by Jennifer L. Mickelson) she never loses the acid behind her wit when dealing with her guileless next-door neighbor Maggie (Alice Wu). It’s the juxtaposition of viewpoints in this relationship – and the completeness with which they’re embodied – that makes for some of the most cutting and funniest scenes. It also serves as a foreshadowing of what’s to come for Maggie – a realization of the truth of the system she’s bought into, erupting in Wu’s powerhouse delivery of a second-act monologue over crumpets.
Carrie Campana’s costumes also hit just the right note – integrating humor with reality, era with personality. The use of the outdated housecoat to protect the pristine women’s dresses and Maggie’s criticism’ of Clementine’s pants reminds us that no matter the era, women are often the arbiters of the laws of the appropriate, regardless of whether they are the lawmakers. Campana’s costuming of the only character in full ancient Greek garb – Apollo – is delightfully ridiculous. Complete with toga, knee-high gold gladiator sandals and golden wreath, it could easily overwhelm a less-committed actor. Jared Dennis, however, embraces the satire of the role and its garb with gusto, finding just the right mix of threat and obliviousness in a role symbolic of cis white male privilege.
BLISS (OR EMILY POST IS DEAD!) is uncomfortable, humorous, and incisive in all the right ways. Especially when it comes to race and gender, it makes it very clear that between Ancient Greece, Mid Century New Jersey, and America today that not as much has changed as we might hope
BLISS (OR EMILY POST IS DEAD!) runs through August 25th. For more information visit prometheantheatre.org.