You’ll be uncomfortable. The things you’re hearing when you see The Condition of Femme by Circle Theatre will be incredibly unpleasant. If you have had the experiences, you’ll relate, and it might be painful. If you find it unimaginable, you’ll have your eyes opened in the worst ways. It’s for this reason that The Condition of Femme exists—to tell the stories of women and those that identify as such in naked detail so that it can’t be ignored or avoided. The Condition of Femme manages to accomplish this, but not without stumbling over a fair share of clichés and with the burden of some underdeveloped characters who at times seem more like archetypes than actual women. Still, The Condition of Femme has some great performances as well as a fantastic multimedia element that could stand on its own as an education on the problem of rape culture in America.
The Condition of Femme is a world premiere by Circle Theatre, directed by Amanda Jane Long. It’s written by Lauren Marie Powell, who also stars as Reagan, the central character in the narrative. Reagan is a 20-something woman we find in the midst of a move who’s haunted by (and running from) her past job as a rape hotline counsellor. Reagan and that occupation serve as the framework for the rest of the play, as each story you’ll hear represents a call that she’s taken in her time working the hotline. It’s a serviceable if obvious choice for how to tell these stories—many of which are true stories Powell sourced on her own from women she talked to in the development of the play. Each woman’s story is set in this frame, with an interstitial multimedia addition that was always impactful. Each montage touches on a different topic—from the religious oppression of women to media portrayals of women of color and even at the way women shame each other.
Reagan, as the driving force behind the play, is quick to go into monologue mode and melodramatic in her delivery. Sometimes the importance of the stories being told is overwhelmed by her sighs, shrugs and overlong glances.
Character development within the play is hit-or-miss. Some characters really stand out, and fantastic performances elevate the source material, while others, though acted thoughtfully by an overall excellent cast, seem stuck in stereotypes and take on a sort of uncanny valley, not-quite-but-almost feel. A standout of the evening was Betsy Bowman’s portrayal of Joy. This was a particularly well-rounded character and thus, more realistic. Joy is a cheerful woman with varied interests who comes from a good home. She didn’t learn much about sex growing up and is still struggling in her relationships. Part of her struggles involve dealing with the repressed memory of a rape perpetrated by two men she met at a party. Her discussion of her ensuing feelings of questioning, guilt and shame are extremely true to life, and this is enhanced by Bowman’s impeccable embodiment of her character.
Another of the characters who hit the mark well was Zoey Wendorf’s Alessandra. This was Wendorf’s debut role on the Chicago theater scene, and she was wonderful as a transgender woman who is resigned to living with the abuse often hurled at her. She’s pitch-perfect in the delivery of the story of her assault and brings the play to a new level emotionally. Her vignette could easily stand alone as a powerful example of the frightening consequences that transgendered people have inflicted upon them by those who feel positioned to judge them based on who they are or feel they are owed something by them.
Disappointing choices come with the portrayal of Hope. She’s played sympathetically and even well by Marisa Eason, but I wish some different choices were made on Powell’s part on how to tell the story of abuse and rape by religious officials. Hope as a character has one or two defining characteristics, it seems—that she’s religious, a “redneck” sort, and that she’s unintelligent. Her tale of abuse at the age of 14 and an ensuing pregnancy that ends in her sharing custody of the child with her own rapist is harrowing and an important piece of the picture, but the choice to make Hope so simple undermines the insidious nature of such seductions. While I’m sure the narrative’s intention wasn’t to suggest that only unintelligent women fall into the traps set by men in authority, it would’ve been more powerful to see the same scenario play out with a character who wasn’t quite so stereotypically written.
Cliché choices are what hurt this play the most, and they come in many different forms. Much of the problem lies in Reagan herself, who’s mostly characterized by her anger and pain and whose only other defining attribute is her relationship with girlfriend Cheryl, who suffered sexual assault and rape at a young age and is currently testifying against her offender. This relationship was a good opportunity to bring the narrative into a more intimate space and make us care more for Reagan herself, but the progression only came at the end, creating less of an emotional impact. Another questionable choice came in a “game” Reagan suggests casually about halfway through the performance. She passes out drinks to the audience, then takes one man’s drink and drinks it all and sticks her finger in another man’s drink. It’s meant to be shocking, but it’s a retread of an analogy often used in regard to consent, where a unique approach could have had more impact.
Telling over showing is another problem, with the script itself and its execution often overstating or overemphasizing what was already obvious in the narrative and performances. It’s not necessary, for example, to say “And I use quotes here” when you’ve just seen the character use air quotes, or to orchestrate such a literal final scene. While I liked the opening choreography, which was a simple time-extend sort of look at women going about their lives in the same room, the end sequence only served to cement my feelings that the story would be better served with more subtlety.
Overall, The Condition of Femme is a mixed bag. There are some wonderfully portrayed stories and some truly thought-provoking moments, and Powell injects needed humor to ease the tension of such a fraught subject matter. But there are wrong turns, in both acting and writing, that make me wish for something more or something deeper. Its message is important, and these women’s stories are unforgettable, but The Condition of Femme seems to me stuck in its almost-but-not-quite space.
The Condition of Femme, presented by Circle Theatre at the Buena at Pride Arts Center, 4147 N. Broadway, will run through April 1. Tickets are available here.