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In dramaturgical terms, a play by a man about men is called theater -- from Hamlet to Nixon's Nixon, male playwrights, actors, and themes are not distinguished as "men's theater" (and thankfully so). In contrast a play by a woman about women is frequently dubbed "women's theater," "touchy-feely," "man hating," and yes, "feminist." Every female playwright knows there's something inherently problematic about turning the pen to issues related to the fairer sex. If it's angry, you're a bitch; if it's sexy, you're a whore; if it's feminist, you're a dyke; and if it's angry, sexist, and feminist, well, you're a cunt. Local playwright Ivonne Azurdia, wise beyond her 24 years, sees this dilemma from the get-go and cleverly sculpts her newest play, retch, to beat the audience to the punch.
The first act opens with five actresses in their twenties (Azurdia, Maria Heredia, Jennifer Lehr, Sofia Citarella, and Caroline Edelen) preening and primping in an imaginary mirror facing the audience. Don't get comfy for a special episode of House of Style Goes to SoBejust yet. Suddenly fists are raised, feet are stomping, and these capricious thespians are fervently chanting: cunt, bitch, whore, dyke!
No, retchwill not be a Lifetime channel TV movie, nor is this a Real Worldepisode about an all-girl band out of Seattle. retch is most definitely not a high-dollar, star-studded tale of woe culled from vaginas all over the world. As the author herself says, "I did Vagina Monologues in college. I'm not interested in praising the beautiful box that is the uterus." This is in fact high-energy, well choreographed, and often hilarious theater by a woman about women. "I wanted it to be simple and I wanted it to have a music -- a sort of rock-concert monologue piece," explains Azurdia. "I didn't want it to be about, 'Oh, we're girls and look what happens to us' -- women have more to talk about than their period and handbags."
retch is a play in three acts: "Life," "Relationships," and "Family." With over twenty short scenes from diners to boxing rings, it explores the lives of women in their twenties. How do they see the world? How do they get through the day? How hospitable is the world to them? We see hardworking secretaries getting pushed down the corporate ladder, maids battling deportation, recent college grads who can't get jobs as toll booth attendants, and aspiring young actresses being told looks are infinitely more important than talent.
The script is often well crafted and clever, but the magic in retch is the acting and direction. This is Azurdia's second solo writing effort. The first, Portrait, won a Curtain Up Award for best new play in 2001. Her experience at collaboration (she has co-written three other plays with Paul Tei for Mad Cat Theatre Company) strengthens her ability to work well with her cast and co-director Ricky J. Martinez. Azurdia and Martinez's style of presenting one comedic situation and then quickly jumping to the next is excellent -- we go from Lehr waving her horn-rimmed glasses in her boss's face to Edelen sharing her take on life while doing a series of sun salutations, a hilarious performance.
The most successful monologues are the ones where the women really let it rip. Hence the definition of retch: "To express -- to get it out, no holds barred, what you want to say, but don't." One of the play's strongest features is that it runs the emotional gamut of comedy; the pieces are funny, but they don't shy away from other emotions. Monologues like "Skinny," "Immigration," and "Anti-feminist" are disturbing, moving, and thought-provoking without ceasing to be funny. It's a real treat to see actresses explore the emotional terrain of comedy with such force and there's not a weak player in the troupe. This can also be attributed to Azurdia and Martinez's smart direction.
Heredia, a regular Mad Cat player, is funny and fiery throughout, but especially so in "Diner." Newcomer Citarella is the most "girlie" of the girls -- a good addition to the crew. And Lehr's performance confirms that she is one of Miami's best-kept secrets. Having performed with GableStage and Mad Cat right out of college, she has shown her consistent talent for comedy. Lehr's idiosyncratic approach to the most mundane characters and her uninhibited quirkiness hearkens back to the late Gilda Radner. The monologue "Skinny," one of the most powerful of the evening, also reveals her ability to take on more dramatic material.
Director Martinez's experience in musical performances blends well with Azurdia's "monologue/rock video" concept. The five actresses are always moving and the music is always changing, which brings a lot of latitude to the small performance space. At times the script seems disjointed. We don't always follow the plot line -- from a diner, to yoga class, to acting auditions, to family tragedy, there's a workshop feel to the movement of the production. And in fact the project began with several monologues Azurdia wrote for her friends when she was a student at New World School of the Arts, but this project-in-progress feel lends itself to the play's vitality. retch is smart, funny, and the monologues that work well are stellar, a prime example of Miami Light Project's mission to support local artists by giving them a venue to try out new works.
The final part of the play, "Family," is the most puzzling of the evening because it is a very different kind of theater from the previous two acts. It is drama, whereas the other pieces are clearly comedy. It would be interesting to develop "Family" into its own piece, but as it stands it's hard to make the shift from raucous humor to heavy-duty emotion. The premise of the first two acts is so clear, it risks turning retch into a hodgepodge of monologues, which it is not. Also the monologues within this last section are not very cohesive -- two explore the dangerous emotional terrain of family tragedy and the other two deal with more trivial family issues, creating an odd contrast.
Azurdia rejects the idea that retch is a feminist play -- and perhaps rightfully so -- although she does admit the play is a reaction on some level to feminist thought: "All of us are torn between the views; we don't understand the hard-core, militant feminists, but we also get frustrated when we get put down for trying to succeed." In the end retch is not a play of ideas, not an intellectual play. But it is a reminder of how important it is for theater, especially comedy, to be an experience and not a thesis. In not trying to address one particular group or idea, Azurdia ends up reflecting on many, just by looking at the world around her and finding the humor in it. Thankfully all of these miniplots aren't resolved. This kind of in-your-face performance shouldn't be -- there's too much to keep laughing, and crying, about.