At one point in “LadyM,” the new ensemble-devised piece from the D.C.-based playwrights collective the Welders, three actresses stand shoulder to shoulder and lift the front of their hoop-skirt dresses. Each blood-red garment reveals a word. Reacting with mime-style expressiveness, the actresses do a double-take. Two of them swap places. Now the words form a command to “Shut up,” with the third word a five-letter slur for “woman.”
It’s a characteristic moment for this admirably intentioned, sometimes funny, often tedious meditation on the topic of menstruation. A collection of fanciful, frequently enigmatic scenes, followed by an interactive installation, “LadyM” often works in clown mode. But the subtext is serious: The stigmatization of menstruation, the show implies, is part of a broader tradition of oppressing, controlling and silencing women.
“LadyM” fights back against that dynamic. At one point, for instance, the performers hand out ordinary tampons and sanitary napkins that they proclaim are enhanced with deluxe touches. There’s mention of a bling-encrusted tampon, a vodka-soaked tampon and more. The effect of the lighthearted sequence is not only to take a swipe at the feminine-hygiene industrial complex but also to dismiss the notion that discussion of menstruation should be taboo.
Devised by Rachel Hynes (the lead producing playwright), Anastasia Wilson, Francesca Chilcote, Vanita Kalra and Claudia Rosales-Waters, “LadyM” draws on interviews with hundreds of D.C. menstruators. Another inspiration for the show was “Macbeth” — an earlier work concerned with blood and female strength. With a nod to the Scottish play, the three red-gowned actresses (Hynes, Chilcote and Deidre Staples) are often seen mixing a mysterious potion in a bathtub, evoking seriocomic witches who occasionally speak Shakespeare’s lines.
Other scenes are more oblique, if not downright puzzling. In one expressionistic skit, the performers seem to channel terse Secret Service agents; in another, they vamp with a gun, recalling Diana Rigg in the 1960s spy series “The Avengers.” The imagery may comment upon the pressures that force women to cope heroically and stealthily with menstruation’s challenges.
The retro costumes and the set’s antique-looking green shelves add a sense of history, while the rather broad acting style seems to aim for immediate appeal. (Deb Sivigny is design consultant; Julie Cray Leong designed the costumes.)
A little earnest absurdism about bodily functions goes a long way. It’s a relief when the primary performance ends, giving way to a brief interactive installation: a “Taboo Words Mic” (say “cervical mucus” out loud!), a “Period Product Petting Zoo” (an informative show-and-tell about hygiene strategies, led by Kayla Schultz), “Panty Ponderings” (jot your reflections on paper underwear), and more.
Despite the occasional wit and frequent boldness, “LadyM” is a little like doing situps — potentially useful, and not very enjoyable. The first quality should not be underestimated: The stigmatization of menstruation has serious health and socioeconomic consequences for people around the world. The creators of “LadyM” have addressed this issue with inventiveness and daring — so much daring, you might say they have screwed their artistic courage to the sticking place.
LadyM, devised by Rachel Hynes, Anastasia Wilson, Francesca Chilcote, Vanita Kalra and Claudia Rosales-Waters. Assistant costume designer, Kyla Carney; sound design, Aaron Finkelstein; lighting, Jon Medley; shadow puppets, Colin Connor; special props, Alex Vernon. About 90 minutes. Tickets: $12-$30. Through July 27 at Joe’s Movement Emporium, 3309 Bunker Hill Rd., Mount Rainier, Md. thewelders.org.