A naked, crashing, crying kind of gravity

Categories: Theater

The presidential aspirations of Hillary Clinton have forced an American conversation about gender. But where that conversation is loudest--among the talking heads on the major television news networks--it is also the most inane. And it is without gravity. Could such a primal thing as the relationship between gender and power really be handled with any integrity on television, in short segments and interrupted by ads hawking beer, cereal and luxury vehicles?

Romeo Castellucci knows something of gravity--the naked, crashing, crying kind. And for three days last week he gave gravity to every person who bought a seat at the Walker’s McGuire Theater.

Photo: Steirischerherbst/Manninger

The program for Hey Girl! warned of “nudity and simulated violence.” On opening night, two women sat waiting for the show and wondering they were in for. “I don’t know,” one said to the other, “but it’s going to be loud and awesome.” Hey Girl!, Castellucci’s portrayal of the grace and horrors of womanhood, was both of those things.

Photo: Steirischerherbst/Manninger

More significantly, with barely a word spoken, Hey Girl! was the conversation America is not having about gender and power. That conversation begins with a question: How do we define Woman?

Castellucci suggests an answer in the shaved pubic areas of Hey Girl!’s two lead performers. From the theater seats the women appear sexless below below their breasts. But nothing about Hey Girl! is sexless. And what might have seemed a Barbie-like gender ambiguity in any other context is something far more sinister here: it is the long echo of Aristotle’s assertion that the “the female is, as it were, a mutilated male.”

Is this what the pundits mean when, pulling from the bottomless bag of English adjectives, they pick “shrill” to describe Hillary Clinton? Is “shrill” what is left when the “male” qualities are stripped away and the female politician stands naked before her audience?

Photo: Steirischerherbst/Manninger

Castellucci, of course, did not intend a commentary on America’s presidential competition. But his is a kind of theater where, in his words, “the viewer is confronted with questions that automatically feed a debate.”

Hey Girl! is 80 minutes of visceral, hypnotic theater--where a woman emerges from flesh-colored goo, perfume boils on sword, and a laser bores into a woman’s head. There is exploding glass, ear-splitting static, decapitation, and a naked woman painted silver. All of this in service of an abstract narrative that has a young woman alternately whispering, convulsing, and asserting her way through the sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrible, always powerful symbols of womanhood and women’s experience in the world. “She will need to harden herself,” Castellucci writes of the two nameless women in his piece. “Half Joan of Arc, half Juliet, she will be torn between the desire to fight for her freedom and a powerlessness that condemns her to wait to be saved.”

Photo: Steirischerherbst/Manninger

Hey Girl! is a universe inhabited by two nameless women--one white and one black. The white woman is born naked from ethereal goo at the start of the performance. The black woman walks on stage a half-hour later, crying under a giant mask of the white woman’s face. She is stripped naked--gently--by the white woman and placed in chains. Her birth is less graceful. It comes when the white woman releases her from her chains. There is an ancient arrogance here: the notion that some are born free and others are gifted their freedom. If you can call Castellucci a feminist, he succeeds in Hey Girl! where the early stages of feminism failed: he refuses to isolate the struggles of gender from the struggles of race--and our presidential contest comes tumbling onto Castellucci’s stage once more.

But he intended something more than a meditation on what he calls the “slavery, violence and servitude that still too often afflict women.” Of his main character, he says: “This anonymous girl, so far from being an icon of feminism, represents all of mankind. She is just someone hidden behind the archeology of the feminine form.”

It is easy to forget that this world of enormous gravity--this meditation on the “slavery, violence and servitude,” of women’s experience--is the construction of a man: a visual artist from Italy. But perhaps, as a man, he is uniquely qualified for the task. When Jack Holland, author of the seminal Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice, was asked why a man should attempt a study of Misogyny, he shot back: “Why not? It was invented by men.”

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