Friday, December 16, 2011

Rapunzel's Existential Crisis

I know I have been blogging infrequently. I've been busy. I've also been confused -- undergoing some of that "I'm three and a half years out of college; now what?" angst. In some ways I feel remarkably tied down: I have a job that keeps me busy, plenty of extracurricular stuff going on, there's always something hanging over my head. But in other ways, I feel "the unbearable lightness of being": I am single and childless, I am not really beholden to anyone, if I chose to abandon some of my responsibilities and do something else (or even do nothing), would it really matter?  I suppose that this truly is an "existential crisis"-- in the sense that existentialism is a philosophy that starts from the idea "I'm free; now what?"

In such moments, I convince myself that maybe I'd be happier if I gave up some of my freedom and followed "the rules." Not that rules exist these days the way they did fifty or a hundred years ago (especially in an anything-goes town like San Francisco), but if I went looking for rules and order, I'm sure I could find them. Settle down. Marry a nice man. Build your character. Stop whining so much. Volunteer to help the unfortunate. Stop wasting time on the Internet. Listen to classical music. Read great literature. Stand up straight. Make your bed. Stop questioning things, stop brooding. Stop insisting on freedom; it's only making you unhappy. You spoiled, selfish Millennial girl, who are you to think that you can live so heedlessly?

So I feel confused a lot, and guilty a lot, in that existential way.

I feel guilty that I haven't written about Ladies in Waiting, the latest No Nude Men show, which is closing this weekend -- as many of my friends are involved in it and I really do have things to say about it.
Ladies in Waiting is an evening of three short plays by women: "Woman Come Down" by Claire Rice, "Night in Jail" by Alison Luterman, and "Oily Replies" by Hilde Susan Jaegtnes. Specifically, I wanted to talk about "Woman Come Down," which really gets at all the issues I was discussing above: the existential terror of freedom; the tension between wanting to play by the rules and wanting to break them; the need for every young woman to negotiate her own way of being in the world.

All that, in the form of a fractured fairy tale.

In Claire's play, Little Red Riding Hood, rather than being a child, is a somewhat aimless young woman. She's dating the woodsman, Henry, but feels ambivalent about the relationship; she may not want to settle down and get married, but she finds it hard to articulate what she actually wants. Then, as in the original tale, Red goes to visit her grandmother, encounters a wolf (here portrayed as a rather sleazy traveling salesman with secrets of his own), and ends up taking a different path from the one she planned. Specifically, the wolf tells her about a nearby tower which imprisons a beautiful maiden -- Rapunzel!

Rapunzel has been indoctrinated to hate and fear anyone who isn't her "mother," the witch. She has never questioned her imprisonment. So it takes Red a while to break through to Rapunzel, but eventually the two women have what amounts to a philosophical debate about security and freedom, imprisonment and choice. And Red helps free Rapunzel. And later, at Grandmother's house, Rapunzel helps free Red.

It is a beautiful play, telling me what, deep down, I know to be true: I don't want to follow rules I don't believe in just for the sake of an easier life. "Down is complicated," says Rapunzel, but isn't it better than being isolated in a tower? The play acknowledges that imprisonment can be seductive and that achieving freedom can require pain and sacrifice. (Rapunzel has to cut off all her hair -- her most salient feature -- in order to make the rope ladder to free herself.) But doing only what society tells you to do, and not what you know you must do, is a recipe for a life of quiet desperation. While I must develop a set of rules for living in this world (because I do not want my present state of confusion to last forever!), I need not conform to some externally imposed list of rules.

"Woman Come Down" is directed by Stuart Bousel, with Kirsten Broadbear as the hip, bike-riding Red and Theresa Miller as the daffy, stubborn Rapunzel.

As for the other Ladies in Waiting plays, "Night in Jail" features a flamboyant performance by Broadbear as Marie Antoinette, but this character tends to overshadow the other two characters in the piece: a modern-day "celebutante" who has been arrested for drunk-driving, and the prison guard assigned to her cell. "Oily Replies" is an experimental play, a twisted ontological detective story that takes place on an oil rig. (I find it hilarious that Jaegtnes, who is Norwegian, wrote a play about an oil rig.) Fortunately, it's an experimental play that has a sense of humor about it, including a narrator who keeps losing control of the story, body parts that mysteriously go missing, and three virgins who may or may not have dandruff. Special mention to Karen Offereins for enacting a drowning-by-proxy on dry land (this will make more sense, albeit not total sense, if you see the show).

But mostly, it's "Woman Come Down," and its feminist interpretation of Red and Rapunzel, that will stick with me. It's funny, speaking of revisionist fairy tales, I love Sondheim's Into the Woods. But that show has a conservative, community-oriented message: "No one is alone."  "Woman Come Down," on the other hand, proposes that everyone is alone, individual, free -- so now what?

Ladies in Waiting plays through tomorrow night (December 17) at the Exit Theater, San Francisco. Photo of Red (Broadbear) and Rapunzel (Miller) by Claire Rice.

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