The concept is both clever and intriguing. All who attend “Féminaal,” a play that sends up misogyny in two highly regarded modernist classics, are asked to sign a waiver saying they will view the show “solely as a woman,” irrespective of a viewer’s gender.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. The idea is to suspend the gaze of heterosexual white men, the very artists who named and defined so much of our Western cultural canon. They created many of our most highly regarded works by trafficking in backward ideas around gender, race and sexual identity.
With “Féminaal,” playwright Nina Morrison takes on Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal” from 1923 and Jean-Luc Godard’s 1966 French New Wave film “Masculin Féminin.” In both works, women are disposable and treated as little more than fodder for sexual conquest. Godard’s film has a ménage à quatre with the filmmaker’s character at its center.
“Féminaal,” which opened over the weekend in director Alison Ruth’s quick-paced production for brand-new Grumble Theater, doesn’t challenge the ideas so much as reverse them. Singer and rising star Madeleine (Del M. Logeais) is married to Helgar (Luke Minske). But she is pursued by many others, including photographer Klara (Jeanie Nickel) and one of her backup singers.
Madeleine echoes the Yé-Yé girls of midcentury Paris, female singer-songwriters who were all the rage for a hot second. She sings several songs in “Féminaal” that support the narrative of girls being allowed the same fun as boys, but without all the gendered judgment. Madeleine enjoys sex, which gets her into cultural terrain we all know something about. A promiscuous man is called, admiringly, a stud while women who behave the same way draw condemnation and epithets.
“Féminaal” is ambitious but it feels like something that’s still in the early stages. That may have to do with the acting talent, which is youthful and still developing. It may also have to do with the fact that playwright Morrison, for all her wit, is bound too tightly to her source material. In particular, she nods too much to Godard, who worked in film — a medium where chopping up scenes works better than it does onstage. “Féminaal” is an 80-minute one-act with 30 scenes, which essentially means a barrage of two-minute scenes plus scene changes.
Where the show gets it right is on the notion of power. Perspective and narrative are all at play here, as people seek fame and photographers hold all the power as storytellers — controlling who gets famous, where and how. But this show lands at a time when selfies have become forces of liberation. People are free to create their own narratives, and brands, more than ever.
It’s still an interesting exercise for a man to assume a woman’s perspective when seeing this show, which includes characters being objectified, ignored and generally disregarded. But it’s also nice to see a work that shows the creative team’s fully developed powers. “Féminaal” isn’t there yet, but it shows remarkable promise for Grumble Theater’s future.