Stages

A Tree Falls in About Face’s The Secretaries, & Everyone Hears It

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Kelli Simpkins (Susan), Meghan Reardon (Ashley), Lauren Sivak (Dawn), Erin Barlow (Patty), and Sadieh Rifai (Peaches). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

There are few things in life that I am comfortable in saying make complete sense: the science behind the salty-sweetness of a chocolate-covered pretzel, the inevitable success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, and the effects of the cotton gin on America’s industrialization.

But do you know what doesn’t make sense in our fragile world laden with both order and chaos?

About Face Theatre’s The Secretaries, that’s what.

But perhaps in this case, I’m going to let it slide, because in our aforementioned fragile world, some things simply don’t work on paper. Rather, they gnaw and revel in the fact that they’re not supposed to work – at least not in any manner recognizable to a normal human being. And yet, there’s something about The Secretaries that does work, and instead of denying its borderline off-putting charm, I’m going to accept it for what it is – and so should you.

The production’s Strawberry Slimfast-induced plot revolves around one waify, 20-something Patty Johnson (Erin Barlow). Fresh out of the best secretarial school in early ’90s America, our non-feminist, non-exercising heroine finds herself in one of the most coveted secretarial jobs in the nation, which is apparently typing 120 words a minute for Cooney Lumber Mill in Big Bone, Oregon. However, all is not rainbows and job security in her cozy, 401K position when she realizes the sexed-up, murdering ways of her co-workers (Meghan Reardon, Sadieh Rifai, Lauren Sivak and boss lady Kelli Simpkins). They’re not just an office of pretty faces and word processing skills. Oh no. They’re a team of celibacy pacts, lesbian rendezvous and flannel manned with both rifles and high-waisted lingerie.

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Erin Barlow (Patty), Lauren Sivak (Dawn), Sadieh Rifai (Peaches), and Meghan Reardon (Ashley). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

And if this sounds like the plot of a shitty college play a bunch of your LGBTQ-supporting friends garnered up while, like, totally bored one day and perhaps smoking a certain herbal substance during reruns of Twin Peaks, well, you may not be too far from the truth. The script was originally helmed by the group referred to as “The Five Lesbian Brothers” (Maureen Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibbell, Peg Healey and Tony Award-winner Lisa Kron of Fun Home fame). They’re a female-driven team who originally collaborated at the pro-women/transpeople theater, WOW Café. And while WOW Café is in the East Village’s “theater row,” let’s just say that it wouldn’t be incorrect to assume it a New York equivalent to college experimental theater. But lest you think that The Secretaries, which falls under the category of not-even-remotely-Broadway theater, lacks the substance or intelligence to be considered reputable production material, that’s where you’re mistaken. As The Five Lesbian Brothers themselves put it:

“Our work is drawn from many sources, personal and social and, ultimately it always tackles big themes such as internalized sexism and homophobia, the corrupting influence of corporate culture, sexual obsession… We bring our trademark sense of humor to whatever subject we examine. We are equitable in our parody, skewering homosexuals and feminism with the same vigor we apply to mainstream culture. While not overtly political, our work becomes political before an audience because it is made based on our perspective and the assumptions we hold as lesbians and women who are outside the mainstream culture, and even (sad to say) outside the mainstream theater culture.”

That is essentially a very eloquent, very mindful way of saying: We’re writing the plot to a well-done college play a bunch of your damn intellectual, smartass friends garnered up while, like, totally bored enough TO WRITE INFLUENTIAL LGBTQ THEATER.

As for the Twin Peaks references, well, I’m pretty sure the fact that the set and synth score look and sound as if the Log Lady herself puked all over it can be attributed to the design team, artistic director Andrew Volkoff and director Bonnie Metzgar. That choice is on them – and that includes the Audrey Horne-inspired bathroom décor. I’m not blind to my Twin Peaks references, production team. Cut me some slack.

Are the script and production without flaw? Granted, it’s a smart show, but there are a number of pacing issues. Especially considering that it’s a nearly two-hour parody, which, as many an SNL-driven film has proven, should perhaps never happen ever. And when you have five writers at the desk throwing every witty joke on gay social commentary that they can whip out, there needs to be an even better editor in the room. Needless to say, that didn’t seem to be the case. A lot of structural questions thus go unanswered, such as: What was the attempted message and purpose of a celibacy pact? What was the underlying reason for the secretaries’ pent-up homoerotic desires? And why lumberjack secretaries? (A Monty Python reference, perhaps?)

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Kelli Simpkins (Susan) and Erin Barlow (Patty). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

I suppose the answer to the last question is: Why not have some lumberjack secretaries be the narrators to a greater political, gay theme? Even so, there’s something missing – perhaps an essence of refinement- that keeps the show from being elevated out of the college-level quality spectrum. Mind you that this goes beyond the implied limitations of set budget or general funding. The direction itself could’ve molded a tighter, more finessed product, and that’s just a fact. However, it is that very unfinished demeanor that About Face’s company almost seems to be going for. The show definitely feels like a passion project for all involved, and admittedly, the ensemble is easily the tightest aspect the production has to offer. With a cast led by Kelli Simpkins, Chicago’s own answer to Tilda Swinton, the feminism and confidence comes in bold, Katharine Hepburn-like strokes. That, at least in my book, shouldn’t go unrecognized in a business that often obscures the ferocity of women behind face contouring and push-up bras.

And fierce women are what The Secretaries has in spades, and despite any quirks there may be in the show’s overall foundation, I say give this particular college production a chance. About Face is a company that does have something to say. And with those sentiments in mind, maybe now is the time for us to finally listen to those damned intellectual, smartass friends of ours.

The Secretaries is running at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., until June 12. Show times are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm with a Sunday matinee at 3pm. Tickets are $35 for adults, $20 for students and seniors, and may be purchased online, via phone at 773-975-8150, or in person at the Theater Wit box office.

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