What if instead of working 40 hours per week, missing time with family and losing sleep, Mondays were optional?
What if marriage didn’t come with the expectation of having children?
What if instead of making love to women, men made love with women?
British playwright Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. — playing at 7 Stages Theatre under the direction of Rachel Parish — implores the audience to answer the question “What if?” What if every gender norm was turned upside down and rethought to promote equity instead of superiority?
Birch, who won the prestigious 2018 Blackburn Prize for Playwriting, was commissioned to write the play in 2014 by the Royal Shakespeare Company; and the show had its US premiere at Soho Rep in 2016. Revolt was a late-season add-on for 7 Stages, which was originally scheduled to produce a devised work called Curious Human Encounters in this slot. After their audiences responded positively to Revolt when it was presented as a part of their annual Home Brew Festival last fall, they decided to move Curious to the 2018–19 season. This created space to stage a play that speaks to issues facing women being highlighted by the #MeToo Movement.
This is not the average play, and it is unexpected in its form. This production features an ensemble of four women and two men playing multiple parts in order to poke holes in the power(less) structure that emerges from traditional gender roles. Birch has written the first two acts as a series of vignettes that explore the ways language and gender influence each other. The scene names are projected on the stage, and in the first scene, “REVOLUTIONIZE THE LANGUAGE (INVERT IT.),” a woman (Brooke Owens) and man (Patrick Wade) are getting ready to make love, and when he asks her to lie down and spread her legs, she starts questioning why he can’t do the same. In this hilarious encounter, Birch examines the way that the words used to describe sex put women in subordinate positions.
Another scene, “REVOLUTIONIZE THE WORK (ENGAGE WITH IT.),” challenges conventions of work when a young woman (Renita James) is trying to convince her boss (Mary Lynn Owen) that she does not need to work on Mondays. She reasons that she would like more sleep and time to walk her dogs in the woods. This notion is ludicrous to the boss, who offers the young woman everything from happy hour and gym memberships to a bring-your-pet-to-work day in order to ensure that she is in the office. The scene is so true to life, and by the end, the woman asking for Mondays off seems far more sane than the boss who can’t fathom a four-day work week.
The staging of the play is in itself a revolt. The action takes place on a white platform at center stage with the ensemble dressed in blue and white, sitting on either side of the stage in white chairs. There is a white table with white props upstage of the platform, and white wardrobe racks for costume changes are visible to the audience on either side of the stage. Sound and lighting cues are called onstage with the technical crew sitting on the side of the stage, visible to the audience. This production also makes use of a wide variety of girl power anthems — from Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman” to Khia’s “My Neck, My Back” to underscore the message in the dialogue.
For all of the work the play does to get the audience on board with its unusual structure and quirky sense of humor, it devolves into darkness in the second half. What appears to be a dinner between three generations of women becomes a tongue-slashing 20 minutes of crazy.
Parish does not maintain clarity of message in her direction of these scenes, and what is supposed to be a cacophony of overlapping dialogue and dissection of images used to represent women becomes a hot mess. It just looks like a bunch of actors running around onstage destroying things and shouting — and then there’s a monologue at the end. This fireless fury is unfortunate, because the actors are committed and the play starts off strong.
Revolt offers a satisfying and funny first half and a chaotic, disappointing second half. The play’s messages about the importance of language and the ways women’s bodies are abused for power get completely lost in watermelon metaphors, bloodshed and papers flying (for some reason). One thing that is clear is that America is in the midst of a gender revolution, and just like in the play, how long it takes to extend to the expectations of marriage and motherhood remains to be seen.