Update: Samuel French, the publishers of Bad Jews, sent Gay City a cease and desist order an hour before curtain. They want to shut That'swhatshesaid down for copyright violation. Erin Pike has a plan. Read more here.
Update 2: The show went on, but legal ramifications remain uncertain.
Erin Pike stands onstage and apologizes for over a minute. At various moments a disembodied male voice describes her as mousy, elegant, attractive, a mess, and Pike struggles to embody each of them in quick succession. She runs up and down the stairs wearing heels. She stands in the spotlight and takes off most of her clothes. She immediately puts them back on. She takes them off again. An invisible hand pushes her to the floor. She picks herself up. She's pushed to the floor again.
These are a handful of actions Pike performs in That'swhatshesaid, a dramatic collage written by Courtney Meaker and directed by HATLO. To construct this piece, Meaker compiled lines from only the female characters in American Theater's list of the 11 most-produced plays of the 2014—2015 season. Only two of these plays were written by women. According to Meaker's script, these plays contain 74 total roles, 34 of which were written for women. Of those 34 roles, 28 were written by men.
Meaker splits the hour-long play into two acts. In Act I, she presents the lines and stage directions written by men. In Act II, she presents the lines and stage directions written by women. Each scene is composed of lines thematically bound by behaviors the culture polices the most in women. We see woman as sex object and temptress. Woman as angel. Woman as angry witch. The girl, the woman-hating woman, the woman who asks questions and apologizes for everything.
You get the big-picture point pretty early: society forces women to conform to certain harmful and paradoxical gender stereotypes, and America's most popular plays reflect those stereotypes. Playwrights perpetuate the patriarchy by creating roles for women that reduce them to one version or another of male fantasy or fear, and playhouses make sure those plays have a home. When women actors get these roles, they often find themselves having to work doubly hard to manifest complex characters from these, at times, flatly-written figures, and the toll this takes on womens' psyches and bodies is tremendous. All of this goes on despite the fact that many fancy The Theater as a happy liberal potluck of institutions trying to fight the good fight by expanding our capacity for empathy through the power of drama. Meaker's collage amounts to a righteous critique of this system, and the nuances of Pike's visceral, humorous performance makes that critique all the more poignant.
Initially, Pike hams up the performances of the various roles she's playing, which establishes a tone of humor and lighthearted ribbing. But as she continues to flicker in and out of the lives she's playing, the demands of the script become increasingly impossible to fulfill.
One stage direction from Joshua Harmon's Bad Jews goes like this: "She watches the bathroom door, like a cat roused from an afternoon nap, pretending to still be asleep while she formulates a plan of attack, with one eye open." Not only is this simile confusing and therefore unhelpful (I can imagine a director stroking his beard and saying, "NO! You are watching the bathroom door like a cat roused from an evening nap—try to think more afternoon nap") but it also reinforces the ol' feminine/feline cliché. Though I can see how an actor would just translate all that bullshit into "look sneaky," it takes work to look past the subtle misogyny—not to mention the bad writing—on display in that direction.
Other stage directions ask Pike to exhibit emotions that no one could possibly exhibit. My favorite: "She is moved, and uncomfortable." Try it. Try to feel moved and uncomfortable at the same time without looking like you have to go to the bathroom. And yet, the very fact that this character is being told to perform this impossible task reflects the paradoxical pressures the culture places on women everyday: be sexy and angelic, be assertive but demure, etc. And oh yeah, if you do one without the other then you're gonna catch shit for it—you're going to be called a slut, bossy, etc.
Though Pike plays many of the lines for parody in order to highlight the sexism contained within them, Meaker's collage technique deconstructs and decontextualizes some of the lines written by men so that the women characters seem as if they're trying to claw out of their role. For example, there's this line, again from Bad Jews: "You’re right: your girlfriends aren’t inferior. You are." Pike throws this punch in the voice of Daphna Feygenbaum, who's just spent a paragraph making fun of her cousin Liam's girlfriends, but in the context of That'swhatshesaid the object of the blow is an empty chair, the erased male figure, the playwright who's created all of these "inferior" girlfriends. So, in this case, the line reads as an act of rebellion, one that calls out not the apparent flaws of the women characters Harmon is making fun of in the voice of Daphna, but the flaws—the lack of imagination and empathy—of their creator.
The most moving moments in the show occur during the transitional moments. The lights go down and contemporary pop songs boom overhead for a moment or two. During these moments, Pike the actor prepares to power through another onslaught of stereotypical roles. She wipes the fake tears from her eyes. She dances a little, seeming to find some relief in the cotton candy beats. During the show she's been keeping tally of all the women-roles-written-by-men on one arm using permanent marker, and by the end of the play they begin to overtake her arm like some kind of skin-eating disease. You can see faint tally marks left over from previous rehearsals of the play. These moments and these images blur the line between the performer and the performance. You can imagine Pike trying to scrub off the permanent marker in her bathroom sink, rubbing her skin red.