We seated ourselves to the sound of screaming goats, bleating out the “Heys!”, “Yeahs!”, and other long-drawn notes from popular songs and music videos. Dream Theatre, in Pilsen, chose to open the house to their play anthology “WOMEN! A Comedy” graciously early. They also chose to project above their stage these and other leavings from YouTube: exploding Disney princesses, parodies of nineties women’s exercise tapes, snatches of beauty pageants that ached for intervention from the Department of Child Services. Dream was obviously priming the crowd and the crowd shamelessly smirked at the girl failblogs—the aggregations of humiliating stumbles, slips, and slides—safe in the thought that it was all intended to ready them for louder laughs.
Written by Jeremy Menekseoglu, played by fourteen actresses and one actor, “WOMEN!” seemed poised to make a good time of spoofing the stereotypes suggested by the preshow screenings. Each of the seven, short plays luridly caricaturized their principal participants. Like the screaming livestock mocking well-loved tunes, each play irreverently down-dressed well-traveled archetypes: insultingly brainless high school beauty queens; a twitchy, obsessive, kohl-eyed redhead; an obnoxiously self-important young mother, to name a few. Like the videos that prologued the night, “WOMEN!” ostensibly encouraged us to read the characters’ cringeworthy awkwardness as social slapstick, to resist the temptation to sink into our seats and instead try to take pleasure in the personaes’ pain.
The first play, “1950’s Impromptu Dinner Etiquette,” introduced the troupe, its idiosyncratic multimedia set-design, and a thin, oily sheen of anxiety that slicked every subsequent joke. “Etiquette” exploded that early suggestion of slapstick, undermining its own genre of exploitative situational comedy. Never far beneath the humor lay everything from quiet suffering to outright trauma. Rendered as a classic Coronet educational film, “Etiquette” situated its middle-aged, steel-haired patriarch amongst digital props and furniture. Once the title card and credits had faded and the lights went up, a black-and-white parlor kept playing above, on the stage backdrop. The technique lent a disturbing immediacy to the red-cardigan presence below, appropriate for the bachelor’s gradual reveal as creep and outright rapist. The harmless suggestion to bring wine instead of beer graded into the more sinister preference for sitting his host’s daughter on his knee, then to a discussion of the proper technique for noncommittally grazing the hostess’s breasts. The audience chuckled at the gulf between the reel’s pedagogical hopes and the actor’s satyrish tactics. But the chortles were at best uneasy when he demonstrated how to harmlessly, playfully pelvic thrust. On the hostess herself, whom he summoned through the stage door, despite the obvious discomfort in her strained for-film smile.
The airhead antics of the second play’s Texan pageant princesses were played as jokes but sparked distress. As contestants butchered a speech from “Antigone,” danced with gruesome panache, and cited platitudes about community service and abstinence advocacy, it grew harder to believe that they were once competent, confident humans. The action implied so many successive homecomings, proms, and bedroom brutalizations—crushingly grim origins for the hapless prancing less than ten tenuous feet before us. Unspoken, these everyday atrocities shadowed the contenders’ clownish comedy. As you watched their sorrow and grief glide closer to the surface, the show grew unendurable. The play concluded absurdly, introducing a hamburger grinding machine into which pageant participants would ultimately be dumped. A last-minute cameo by the previous play’s patriarch in the guise of judge announced the elephant lurking hugely in the room. By mischievously dumping symbolic red ribbons over the pageant-mistress’s head, he demonstrated his belief that this was all tremendously funny, light as a practical joke. He embodied the central tension. In laughing at these broken souls—repackaging them as heavily-made up leftovers—we would toss in with the echo of a molester and affirm his gaze.
The show’s most benign humor remained murky and the general pitch tacked towards inky-black. A showdown between two incompatible roommates—a free-booting, shampoo-stealing, Cheeto-appropriating loafer, and the tense ginger of previous mention—ends in double homicide. “My Roommate, My Nemesis” pursues the latter subleaser’s comment that she knew she would have to kill her flatmate to its impossibly literal extreme. She chivalrously produces two knives, one hilt-first to the enemy, calmly topping the diners’ wineglasses. The preceding fight has been raucous fun for all but the involved parties. The duelist’s gesture appears ridiculous right down to the homicidal count of three. Locked in a moment of mussed-haired, sweat-beading fear at the moment of death, they mutually admit their wrongs. Neither blinks nor stays her hand. Given the laughter that resulted from the moments contributing to this grand human waste, the feeling after lights-down was especially sickening.
“New Friend” asks that the audience introduce itself into one of these outrageous, outlandish dramas and contemplate the plot’s inhospitable contrivances. It asks us to occupy the shoes of the titular friend: a one-armed lesbian who stood uniquely un-outrageous among the plays’ caricatures. Confused by an inept coffee-shop hipster’s excruciatingly direct advances, she finds herself in the latter’s home that night, pawn to a crackbrained scheme to murder the hipster’s domineering Catholic grandmother by shock and heart-attack. The friend betrays no witty, exaggerated fear, attempts no bumbling escape plan. Instead, the audience was struck by a viscerally articulated wave of breathless exhaustion, glassy-faced terror, and debilitating panic. The character recognizes this dangerously dysfunctional environment for what it is. By responding to the imminent danger humanly instead of comically, the friend puts “New Friend” into correspondence with the previous plays. Premeditated entrapment is not a joke. The knife beneath the hipster’s pillow—which she proceeds to idly wave around—is not a joke. What’s funny for the friend about the grandmother appearing in the bedroom door with a pump-action Winchester, murdering the granddaughter atop her, and succumbing to cardiac arrest before she can finish the job? The play laser-lit its grim-faced practicality when the one-armed friend understandably struggled to dislodge the heavy corpse slowly suffocating her. “Don’t you die on me!” became the anthology’s single grimmest pun.
“WOMEN! A Comedy” was no laughing matter. Though the plays were ridiculous, rambunctious, and raunchily overacted, each invariably featured agonizing assaults on a bruised soul or a trivialized life. “WOMEN!” demanded that you laugh to defuse plunging embarrassment, nagging horror, and the dissonance between its elbow-nudging rhetoric and grisly action behind it. You suffered to laugh at this suffering, knowing it was sourced from a character’s deep-rooted distress and disturbance, extant social ills—that it invariably ended in figurative and literal casualties. After all, “WOMEN!” wasn’t purely a work of fiction. There are such real, live, cardiganed creepers who inspire the sketch lampooning them; there are those who self-annihilate by daily enacting easy tropes and clichés. Somewhere there are disasters playing out on some dismal fairground stage, where the bewildered protagonists don’t dissolve into unbidden tears only for the express enjoyment of the crowd below. “WOMEN!” reads as the breakdown of the pleasure-in-pain model, illustrating that some horrors are simply too unforgiving for guiltless laughter.