Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Drew Reviews: The Shapes We Make With Our Bodies

The Shapes We Make With Our Bodies by Meg Whiteford
4 Stars - Drew Strongly Recommends
Pages: 87
Publisher: Plays Inverse Press
Released: 2015

Reviewed by Drew Broussard

The Short Version: A woman called Honey grapples with, well, what being a woman means while three Maenads torment her around the edges (and even, perhaps, directly).

The Review: Have you ever given much thought to a sigh? Like, really thought about it - the movement of the body, the emotion expressed therein, and so on? I confess that I never gave much thought to a sigh (other than in the moment of shoulder-loosening release that sometimes comes with sighing) until reading The Shapes We Make With Our Bodies but now I find that I can't stop thinking about them. About that moment of held-breath that seems, possibly, to go on forever just before the release of the sigh, just before the exhale - and about how long that moment can or could last. Meg Whiteford is clearly thinking about it too.

She's also thinking about femininity in our modern society, specifically (at least as I read this play) in the context of relationships. Honey, our main character, seems to've been unlucky in love - although 'unlucky' is perhaps an unfair term... but she has lost love, she has "fallen prey to the diabolical look of a vindictive man", in one of the best and most immediately quotable lines from the play. She is expressing the breadth of her sexuality and being judged for it, from all directions. She is cast out, banished, perhaps because of it (because of all of it) - or at least she feels ostracized for it, as women in myth and story often have, due to love.

The play is, as with anything from the daring team at PlaysInverse, a non-traditional play. It'd be difficult to consider staging this, at least by any traditional concept of staging... but, then, I thought of no one so much as Chuck Mee during many sections of this play, particularly when the narrator - because the stage directions are not so much stage directions as they are interjections from a narrator (who may or may not be the playwright) - jumps in to comment on behavior or when a judge calls for order for 54 minutes or when a character is described as "a dragon dressed as a woman dressed as a THERAPIST". That imaginative wilderness that somebody like Chuck (or Mac Wellman, if I think back to the utter weirdness of Description Beggared, or The Allegory of Whiteness) lives in feels like it's right where Meg Whiteford is headed as a playwright - because the play isn't necessarily about the staging so much as it is about the words and the thoughts that they inspire.

In an early scene, Honey describes herself as infected by language - and I get the sense that Whiteford is, too. There are moments here where words become unstoppable, pouring out and creating a symphony of sound, then meaning. Sometimes this manifests in the text in traditional poetic structure (broken lines, stanzas, etc) but other times it is simply a block of text like a paragraph. It's easy enough to glaze over or let one's mind drift during these moments... but Whiteford has that very special talent of being able to keep a hook in the reader's brain so that even if they do drift, they're drifting on-point, as it were. It happened to me a few times, where I might glaze over a page but find that my own thoughts were running parallel to the thoughts spilling out on the page. This is a marvelous skill to have in a writer and it shows a remarkable potency in such an early-career poet/playwright/performer.

Whiteford is infected by language not just in the way that she writes (which is to say the structure and the sound of the words) but also in the content. There are references to everything from Shakespeare to The Wizard of Oz, scenes inspired by horror films and legal thrillers, commentary on the ladies who lunch as well as on the queer scene. She's a child of the 21st Century - which is different, although not dissimilar, from a millennial - in that she knows how to condense the sum of cultural experiences she's encountered and turn it into something brand new. This, too, is a skill that few writers have at any age or time. And if this is what she can do with something as universal (and yet totally intimate) as heartbreak and recovery... well, I can't wait to see what comes next.

Rating: 4 out of 5. Some moments drift a little far afield, coming off like a bit of an exercise or a writing stretch - I.iii, for example, is one of my favorite scenes but it also stands out to me as something tonally different from the rest of the play. But the way these moments wrap back around to each other creates a thought loop that sticks with the reader long after they've put the play down. It's not often we see something new that speaks to femininity, to love, to the universal and the specific - but damned if Meg Whiteford doesn't achieve something rather like that here.

Drew Broussard reads, a lot. When not doing that, he's writing stories or playing music or acting or producing or coming up with other ways to make trouble.  He also has a day job at The Public Theater in New York City.

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