Q: What do you call a play created and performed entirely by women?
A: What are you, sexist? It’s called a play.
Rimshots aside, it is notable that Minneapolis currently boasts not one but two bold new works where virtually everyone involved identifies as female. In addition to the return of the Jungle’s “The Wolves,” there’s Transatlantic Love Affair’s company-created “The Devout,” directed by Isabel Nelson and performed on a bare stage by six women, clad in monkish hoodie/tunics, and accompanied by versatile musician Walken Schweigert. It’s a show that insists that being a woman cannot be reduced to a stereotype.
“Sometimes it’s hard for people to know that another’s strength does not make us weak,” says ensemble member Cristina Florencia Castro in what could function as the piece’s thesis statement. Inspired by Greek mythology and, specifically, the origins of Medusa, “The Devout” is set within a community of women who train together in an exciting, unison dance that recalls the powerful movement in Beyoncé’s “Formation” video. They also test their skills in battles that culminate with loser and victor ritualistically telling each other, “My weakness is my own.” / “My strength is my sister’s.” Until the spirited competition morphs into something else, their world seems like paradise, a bit like the “Wonder Woman” movie before the superhero had to haul herself to our world and fix it.
Highlighted by that “Formation”-like formation, “The Devout” is a mime- and movement-based piece that includes a bunch of memorable bits of physical theater: performers winding around each other to suggest a coiling nest of snakes or using a rickety rope bridge to make their unsteady way, one by one, across a chasm. One of those women (Siddeeqah Shabazz) is a newbie whose skills begin to shift the dynamic of the group.
All of this activity is amplified by the virtuosic music and sounds created by Schweigert, who plays a saw, a guitar, a violin and possibly a hurdy-gurdy, in addition to underscoring scenes with his powerful, keening voice. He’s so effective, in fact, that he sometimes distracts from the piece. It may be that Nelson wants him in his own space, so he’s commenting on “The Devout” rather than taking part, but I kept missing bits of the show because I was so intrigued by what Schweigert, who’s also the lone male on stage, was doing way off to the side.
The first line of “The Devout” is “We live in a world of darkness,” which most of us can relate to, perhaps those of us who are not straight white men even more so. The play’s characters learn the hard way that they can’t always count on others, even their allies, but “The Devout” feels like it’s trying to bring a little light into the world with its insistence that women are warriors, friends, betrayers, jokers, teachers, students. You know, humans.