Review | WIFE MATERIAL at Underscore Theatre Company

Review | WIFE MATERIAL at Underscore Theatre Company

Pictured: Jamie Shriner. Photo by Evan Hanover.

There’s no question that we are in need of more feminist musical theater. Musicals written by women and featuring women who are powerful and self-assured are in short supply. Underscore Theatre is one of very few companies that has dedicated themselves to the development and production of new musicals and so they occupy an important place in Chicago’s community. With WIFE MATERIAL, Underscore makes a critical effort — to diversify and expand the voices that we hear in the forefront of musical theater.

Jamie Shriner’s autobiographical WIFE MATERIAL checks a lot of boxes, and to write, score and perform in an acclaimed full-length musical at this stage in a young career is an exceptional feat — Shriner is one to keep an eye on. We meet Jamie right at the end of her “fairytale” — a trope which she is careful to unpack by rewinding her story and taking us back through a series of varied and formative sexual experiences, some consensual and some not. Jamie’s sex-positivity and queerness contradict an archaic understanding of “wife,” and through her annihilation of the myth that marriage is somehow the end of a woman’s journey of fulfillment and self-discovery, Shriner assures us that, though she has changed her name, she is still very much a work in progress.

As an often-searching mid-twenties bisexual feminist who recently married a man, I appreciate the visibility that Shriner extends. However, the execution of her assertions leaves something to be desired. Ironically, the piece, which purports to be about the intimacy of sex and the vulnerability of big life choices, is lacking in intimacy and vulnerability. Yes, Shriner boldly shares with us the details of her life, but in a way that feels more like a declaration of her feminism than an exploration of her humanity. Shriner sacrifices purposeful dramatic narrative in favor of full disclosure.

Many of Shriner’s songs are well-performed and musically memorable, but ultimately, they only scratch the surface of the complexity of the issues that she is exploring. The script, with direction from Dana Anderson, leans needlessly on clichés and sight gags, seeking laughs and gasps from the audience over truth, connection, or shared experience.

There is a lot to appreciate in WIFE MATERIAL — and in this cast and team, there is certainly talent. I look forward to watching Shriner grow and develop as a songwriter and storyteller. As she herself says, she is a work in progress with much more journey ahead of her, one that promises to be refreshingly bold, brave and unapologetic.

WIFE MATERIAL runs through December 9. For more information visit underscoretheatre.org.

About author

Erin Shea Brady

Erin Shea Brady is a contributing writer and critic at PerformInk and Newcity Stage. Directing credits include: Everybody (Brown Paper Box Co.) and Cabaret, Annapurna (staged reading) and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (No Stakes Theater Project). Erin has assistant directed and dramaturged productions at the Goodman, Jackalope, TimeLine, A Red Orchid, Northlight, and Remy Bumppo. Erin is a graduate of the directing program at Columbia College Chicago, the internship program at Steppenwolf, Jackalope's inaugural Playwright's Lab, and participated in the Goodman's Criticism in a Changing America bootcamp. Erin is a company member with Brown Paper Box Co. and is currently pursuing her MSW at Loyola.

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