It would be easy to be blasé about the Women’s Voices Theater Festival that has taken over Washington’s stages. New plays? Written by women? In 2015 America? You don’t say.
In many ways, moving through this festival feels like the most ordinary thing in the world. It’s not a radically dislocating experience, show by show. Yet the ordinariness is extraordinary, mainly as a political act.
We are well into a second month of the WVTF, and the parade of premieres by female playwrights is emphatically making its point: Gender parity is possible. The scripts are out there. Say yes, produce them at a rate above just once every five shows — the current sneaky, shocking figure illustrating how American theater quietly, consistently discriminates against women — and the world won’t fall apart.
In fact, what’s onstage actually gets more interesting because of all this new work. The panorama of unexpected characters and utterly current points of view has led to a particularly stimulating fall.
Start at the beginning: The festival was conceived as a social justice project, pure and simple. The goal of the seven major D.C. theaters that kickstarted it was to counter the chronic under-representation of female writers. They invited troupes all over the area to make their first show of 2015-16 a premiere by a female writer. You want change? Just do it.
The ease and simplicity of this is obvious and, because it has never been done before on this scale, inspired. It is hoped that this saturation of premieres — admittedly risky, because unknown titles are nearly always the hardest for theaters to sell — is sparking what one organizer calls a “micro-revolution,” at least locally, where D.C.’s awareness about whose stories get told is now sharply raised.
What wasn’t part of the agenda is making a point about whether women’s plays are different. “From each other? Yes,” writer Lisa Kron quipped to NPR’s Susan Stamberg during an interview as part of the festival’s launch event.
If audiences or programmers harbor some sort of idea about what women’s plays are “like” — and they must, because something is driving the bias — what can that mean? Are women’s plays like the sturdy domestic-political realism of Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” or like the fragmented psychology of Sophie Treadwell’s “Machinal”? Like Lorraine Hansberry’s popular, galvanizing “A Raisin in the Sun,” or like Adrienne Kennedy’s experimental, distressing “Funnyhouse of a Negro”? Like Annie Baker’s quotidian three-hour study of cinema denizens, “The Flick” (due at Signature Theatre next spring), or like Suzan-Lori Parks’s three-hour Greek-influenced Civil War epic, “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3),” coming to Round House Theatre in January?
Suggesting the existence of an essentially female voice is a risky business that will be tackled by a panel at the Shakespeare Theatre Company on Oct. 24. (The Washington Post’s Peter Marks is among the moderators.) To regular theatergoers, it’s hardly news that female writers are not all alike. Some of the most anticipated projects this season are recent works from Parks, Baker, Lynn Nottage (“Sweat” at Arena Stage) and Sarah Ruhl (“Stage Kiss” at Round House). Hearing more of these voices this fall is not like learning a new language.
Further mitigating any feeling of explosive overhaul — or, to put it differently, another temptation to be blasé — is the fact that none of the companies have needed to bend out of character to produce a premiere. Woolly Mammoth found an utterly Woolly play in “Women Laughing Alone With Salad,” Sheila Callaghan’s outrageously provocative gender-bending comedy. Signature Theatre is doing a 90-minute chamber musical, “Cake Off.” Studio Theatre premiered a taut British drama, Clare Lizzimore’s “Animal.” The Shakespeare Theatre (Yael Farber’s “Salome”) and the Folger (Karin Coonrod’s “texts & beheadings: ElizabethR”) recruited noted director-adaptors to interrogate literature and history.
Show by show, then, things might not look that different — although the parameters of “professional” Washington theater are a little muddied, as even vigorous theatergoers may wonder about unknown companies that seem to be springing up just to take part. The festival Web site indicates about 50 participants, with late dropouts and last-minute additions, but some are offering only four or six performances (or less) over a weekend or two. About 30 shows meet the threshold of 16 performances for Helen Hayes Award eligibility.
Still, the volume of new stories is making a mark. As Round House Theatre Artistic Director Ryan Rilette points out, it’s the only game in town: Premieres are everywhere. By definition, the gallery is original, and it seems to be expressing a range of concerns, social positions and visions that typically aren’t so readily available.
An apt image surfaced in Venus Theatre Company’s “Witches Vanish”; at one point during Claudia Barnett’s meditation on women who have disappeared (often violently) throughout history, a buried female body slowly pressed into view through a wall.
That’s what is happening as these voices accumulate. It’s a democratic empowerment.
● Jeanne Dillon-Williams’s painted body in Kathleen Akerley’s “Night Falls on the Blue Planet,” with a mesmerizing set design (for Theater Alliance) by Paige Hathaway. That set was a recognizably cool modern apartment belonging to Dillon-Williams’s obsessive character, and it changed to become a vision she’d seen in a dream — a vision that she, too, becomes, coloring her body to meld with her phantasmagorically morphing environment. “Blue Planet” was a gloomy psychological mystery, but thoroughly gripping in its aggressively visual storytelling.
●Darja, the main figure in Martyna Majok’s “Ironbound” at Round House Theatre. She’s Polish. Divorced. Forty-two. A mother whose son is now grown-up trouble. She’s poor and borderline homeless, living in urban New Jersey, rendered in James Kronzer’s set as an imposing series of giant rusted I-beams that dwarf the hapless characters. Darja is tough and complicated — a fighter with a serrated edge.
●Rebellion, in “Salad,” surely a leading poster child for the festival’s protest spirit. You know a play is furious when it makes a point by having an aging woman’s reproductive organs fall out from under her skirt, but Callaghan’s comedy turned into a mindbender after intermission, with the arresting Janet Ulrich Brooks playing the older woman in the first act and her messed-up, tormented son, Guy, after intermission.
●Rebellion, in Jen Silverman’s “Phoebe in Winter,” an absurdist drama at Baltimore’s Single Carrot melding war and domesticity in an American living room. Silverman, like Callaghan (and like Akerley in “Night Falls” and another sci-fi experiment, “Bones in Whispers”), thoroughly razes the landscape she creates.
● Rebellion, in Gabrielle Fulton’s “Uprising,” a historical drama that seems over-directed in an oddly breathless style but that tells an ultimately wrenching story about a free black woman in the 1850s who’s confronted with a horrific choice if she wants to stay with her informally adopted young son.
●Holly Twyford, one of the area’s most accomplished performers, during the final passages of “Bad Dog.” Twyford plays a 40-something alcoholic whose spectacular fall off the wagon summons her not-so-supportive family. The amusing comedy gradually and seriously swings around to the main character’s shame and darkness, and Twyford couldn’t be more convincing.
● Entertainment, in the wholly appealing “Queens Girl in the World,” a smart memoir of growing up alongside the civil rights era of the early 1960s from Caleen Sinnette Jennings at Theater J (a solo work played with verve and charm by Dawn Ursula). Karen Zacarias’s “Destiny of Desire” is often wildly entertaining, too, and the self-conscious telenovela at Arena Stage feels bracingly original, even if the joke about who controls the narrative registers more as loopy fun than as political subversion.
A lot of the works are flawed, but no more than you’d expect from premieres, and most have a rewarding creative snap somewhere — in a dramatic style, in a performance, in a bold design. The jury is still out about how well this festival is luring audiences from one company to another, or whether the goal is being met of boosting the national profile of D.C. theater. (It will tar the organizers if this ultimately ends up looking like a convenient publicity stunt.) Gauging bottom-line success, and even defining metrics for that, will come after the festival is over in a few weeks.
But training the gaze this way already has generated a lively new pool of work with a potentially powerful impact on the parity problem. If it is a mistake, though, to be blasé about the festival, it’s also far too soon to be complacent about the accomplishment. Maybe imbalanced seasons are becoming a thing of the past, but not yet, not even in Washington, not even in this banner year. Keeping the gate open will be the trick: It’s still troubling, and a warning, to realize that without the special effort of this festival, the percentages say almost 80 percent of these works would not have been produced.