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.
(l-r) Francesca Atian, Emily Lindberg, Aziza Macklin, and Jillian Leff. Photo by Candice Lee Connor.
Review: WOMEN at The Cuckoo’s Theater Project
By Erin Shea Brady
We need to retire the “female playwrights” season.
On the one hand, when I see a company produce a season or a festival dedicated to female voices, I’m so glad, because it means that they are recognizing the importance of female voices and are dedicating their season to producing them. This means that more women get work and more women get heard, and I could not be more supportive of that.
On the other hand: Women are not a theme, and equal representation of women is a commitment to make for the duration of a theater company’s life. A season or a festival does not grant you a free pass to be less inclusive once that season or festival comes to an end.
This was my first experience with The Cuckoo’s Theater Project. I don’t know what their values are as a company beyond what is listed in the program — much of which I appreciate and agree with, so this is not meant to be an accusation of them or their intentions. But when I realized that this play, based on the beloved “Little Women,” was part of a “female voices” season, it lost value.
WOMEN is “Little Women” meets the TV show “Girls,” and I understand the parallel. Both feature four women, the central of which is a writer with somewhat lofty ideas about the world and what it means to be an artist. Both grapple with the different choices young women make, and how their behavior is informed by their culture. In Chiara Atik’s play, the March sisters have adopted the lofty, reductive, self-aware humor of Lena Dunham’s show, but remain in civil war era. Comedy-wise, it’s a fun idea and might have been an extremely successful sketch. Unfortunately, it didn’t prove quite as successful as a stand-alone play.
The script had some nice moments. Atik has a way with bits and comedic dialogue, much of which played well. Joe Lino (Laurie), in particular, had excellent timing and seemed to have a handle on the style that the piece was going for. As Beth, Jillian Leff made some great choices. In another actors hands, this version of Beth might have been reduced to a cough, but Leff’s portrayal had heart and sincerity. As Jo, Aziza Macklin was honest, entertaining and brought a lot of energy, though perhaps she was miscast. As a foursome, the women were all high-energy and eccentric, and they needed some balance to ground and focus the story’s arc.
The design mostly worked well. Scenically, I appreciated the attention to detail. The actors were able to move the set pieces efficiently, though I felt that the script, with its quick “lights up, lights down” scenes, made it difficult for us to settle into any one location. I understood what the sound design was trying to do, in bringing in something more contemporary, but it wasn’t specific enough to drive much home.
In bringing together two defining feminist works (whatever your opinion of them, both have become part of the canon), there is the promise of a statement, and hopefully a progressive one. I have only seen a couple of episodes of “Girls” — if I’m honest, it’s not to my taste — but I’m a 25-year-old feminist who loves “Little Women,” which likely makes me the target audience. Unfortunately, I struggled to see the point. This could have been a play about how women have always dealt with issues of individual identity and cultural identity. It could have been a play about how women have always been human beings who deserve the right to pursue their own lives and choices. But under the filter of “Girls,” “Little Women” loses its depth, and at times this production felt like a parody of a great feminist work instead of a tribute, which is deeply problematic. There’s a responsibility that comes with producing a take on an existing work, and I wish that this production had taken that responsibility more seriously.
I’m glad that this company chose a female director to work on this piece. I’m glad that they cast this play inclusively. But what is good on paper isn’t always enough. We need to be careful that what we put out into the world, especially in the current climate, isn’t reductive of the issues that women face. We need to be championing women’s individuality, celebrating the individual voices and paths that women choose to take.
I was disappointed in this production. While an effort was certainly made, I hope to see more thoughtful work from this company in the future.