Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Sasha Smith and Sigrid Sutter in Hinter at Steep Theatre. Photo by Lee Miller.
By Bec Willett
“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
This Margaret Atwood quote appears in my mind before echoing around the rustic cottage set of Calamity West’s latest production HINTER. Commissioned by Steep Theatre and directed by Brad DeFabo Akin, the play is based on a true and unsolved murder that took place in the bereft countryside of rural Bavaria in 1922.
HINTER features a classic crime ‘after and before’ structure, where the ‘after’ makes up the first act, and the ‘before’ the second, and where the surprises of plot that are forgone in the structure are replaced with the tension of pace and silence that is so inherent to West’s writing style. A tight-knit group of friends – Frieda (Lauren Sivak), Elizabeth (Sasha Smith), Victoria (Eunice Woods) Klara (Sigrid Sutter) and Maria (Aurora Adachi-Winter) – are women so silenced by the desperate circumstances of war and patriarchy that even looks and whispers are treacherous. It’s a choice that shows us that even if this plot of the murder is solved, there will be no escape from fear for the women who live here.
The writing is intense and sharp, but this production doesn’t find every edge. With such specificity of style, West’s work is like a tongue and groove mechanism – you’re either in it or you’re not; if some parts aren’t set right it can never quite sit flush. Such was the case with some of the performances and much of the direction of the first act. While Pete Dully’s stunning lighting design is integrated beautifully with the stage pictures to create lonely Edward Hopper images, these moments are often too long, filled with unearned pauses and preceded by pockets of movement that lack intention. The second act, however, is an entirely different experience: here every actor is specific, present, and ‘in the groove’ of the pace of West’s writing, the performances and direction harnessing the fear of the text’s style and subject matter to drive the story forward. It’s like an entirely different play.
While I’m not a proponent of the notion that only women can direct plays written by women, with this production I couldn’t help wonder how it might have fared differently. There’s something about West’s use of silence and language that feels very female, especially in this play that massages and pries open those silences that seem innocuous but often form the foundation of fear for the female experience. Is it possible for a man to fully understand the subtleties of this? If this production is anything to go by, the answer is ‘no’.
Without a stronger female perspective or performances that fully embrace the cadence of West’s style, Steep’s production falls short of the potential stirring in HINTER.