Female playwrights take the stage in ‘Goldfish Thinking,’ ‘Body Awareness’

( C. Stanley Photography ) - William Hayes and Michael Glenn in Longacre Lea's production of “Goldfish Thinking.”

Readers, it’s been a pretty eventful week for the ladies. In front page, earth-shattering golf news, the Augusta National Golf Club has finally admitted not one but two women to its previously all-male organization. This is surely going to throw a hot-pink wrench into the man-fest that is the world of polo shirts, non-contact athletics and silly clapping.

Guys (and girls, welcome to the party!), this is huge. Maybe not for modern Americans but definitely for Colonial Williamsburg, for people in the 18th century and for Augusta. As a celebration, Backstage interviewed two women in the Washington theater community about two plays written by women.*

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*Actually, because Backstage is a normal place in the year 2012, we do this sort of thing all the time.

Dream or nightmare?

“Dreaming takes these very vivid images to point out the consequences of what you’re thinking or feeling,” said Kathleen Akerley, Longacre Lea artistic director and author of “Goldfish Thinking,” which had its world premiere Aug. 16. “People go: ‘I don’t want to have a dream in which I’m about to be executed. I’m going to tell that dream to stop.’ But your brain has a good reason for providing you with that information.”

“Goldfish Thinking” is about a law student who dreams she’s been accused of murder and is going to be executed. The nightmare starts to have repercussions in her waking life — hallucinations, speech she can’t explain — and she finds herself needing to solve a murder mystery to save her life.

Even though dreams are personal by nature, Akerley, who has been writing down her dreams since she was a teenager, isn’t worried about the play connecting with a wider audience. “There are images that I think are roughly universal,” she said. “My social circle all know to call me up if they have a weird dream, and I’ve managed to spot some commonalities: related to water, mechanized forward motion . . . whether you’re a person driving or a passenger. . . . So there are enough things I can include in the play that the audience can subconsciously nod, ‘Ah, yes, this is where we are.’ ”

Akerley wasn’t always convinced it was possible to portray dreams onstage, but she’s come around, using lighting and sound-design cues to create “a kind of recognizable sonic incoherence.” Her goal is to strike a middle ground between “so weird the audience goes, ‘That’s a mistake,’ ” and “so normal, like the movie ‘Inception’ which, to me, was just one step off normal.”

She’s tapping into her memories of attending Georgetown Law with cutthroat classmates (she calls them “the pit bulls of law school”) to create the law school in the show. “It was just a really unpleasant environment,” she said, where she “got booted from the library first year” because she was laughing while reading “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” on a study break.

“In some ways, [the play is] just silly good fun. It’s Agatha Christie, suspects in the parlor scene, all that good stuff,” she said. “But the core issue is the strange task of using our own brains to solve our brains. ‘Goldfish Thinking’ is meant to be a reference to the idea of being in the bowl of your own brain.”

Through Sept. 9, Callan Theatre, Catholic University Drama Complex, 3801 Harewood Rd. NE, www.longacrelea.org, 202-460-2188

Humor, in the flesh

Know this about Eleanor Holdridge, director of “Body Awareness” at Theater J: She does not always laugh out loud when she reads scripts.

Some people laugh at anything. They are easy gigglers. Not Holdridge.

But she did laugh when she read “Body Awareness,” by Annie Baker (who won an Obie Award for her play “Circle Mirror Transformation”). “I find the humor incredibly sly, intelligent and witty,” Holdridge said. “It seems like the humor of the NPR listener.”

Set in Baker’s go-to fictional Vermont town of Shirley (where “Circle” also took place), “Body Awareness” is about a family — Phyllis, Joyce and their son Jared, who may have autism — and what happens to them when Frank, a photographer visiting Shirley College for Body Awareness Week, contributes to the seven-day event by displaying photos of nude women in the student union.

Although the naked photographs spark much of the debate in the play, the audience never gets to see what they look like. “I think it’s important that we don’t see them,” Holdridge said. “We know Joyce says they’re beautiful and they fill her with the idea of women’s strength. And Phyllis says they’re exploitative because it’s a man taking a photo of a naked woman.”

This is the same Phyllis who deemed the week “Body Awareness Week” in the first place. “It’s really supposed to be National Eating Disorder week, but Phyllis has clearly wanted to make it more profound than that,” Holdridge said.

Holdridge was drawn to the way that play addresses “our human need to define or codify,” she said. The photographer “could or could not be a pervert or creepy, how sinister is he?” and Jared raises questions of his own. “Does he have Asperger’s or not? Is he deeply troubled? . . . How potentially dangerous is he?”

She declines to say where she lands on these issues and said Baker withheld her opinion, too. “I think [Baker] is really brilliant at walking the line between not ever really deciding for the audience.”

Saturday to Sept. 23, 1529 16th St. NW, www.washington
dcjcc.
org/center-for-arts/theater-j, 202-518-9400.

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