Posted by: strugglesome | November 1, 2011

The Origin of the Species: Interact Theatre Company’s The How and the Why

Despite what the former president of a certain Ivy League University located in Boston might think, women actually are excellent at science and math. And I’m not just talking about Marie Curie. The fact is that women are perfectly comfortable in the world of analytic thinking. We are born multi-taskers, its genetic. The fact that I read that in an issue of Cosmo is totally besides the point. Women are good at doing more than one thing, because we’ve had to be. While men were out their hunting, women where gathering. And cleaning. And feeding children. And warding away stray predators. And figuring out how to make clothing out of animal skins and twine. When you think of all that, hunting seems like kind of a cop-out, now, doesn’t it?

But despite all of the many accomplishments of the female of the species, it seems that women are forever in the position of defending their worth, as we see in Sarah Treem’s The How and The Why, currently playing as the first show Interact Theatre Company’s season. And not just to men, but to each other. Of course, it doesn’t help when the one woman you desperately want to impress, Zelda (Janis Dardaris) is not only a world-class scientist but also your birth mother, as Rachel (Victoria Frings) soon discovers. When these two brilliant, ambitious, flawed female scientists meet for the first time as adults, it’s as much a chess match as it is a reunion.

Inside of Zelda’s minty green office (set design by Meghan Jones who does dive bar a lot better than Ivy League interior) at an unnamed University (i.e. Harvard, which is what we in the art business call irony, given the fact that Treem went to Yale) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, African masks decorate the walls and tension fills the air. Rachel, a graduate student in evolutionary biology, a cute jacket, and jeans (appropriately contemporary costumes by Susan Smythe), has come to meet the world-famous and famously single senior professor Zelda, who also just happens to be her biological mother, and her evolutionary biology superior. Scott Burgess’ The Gods Must Be Crazy style soundscape pairs nicely with Peter Whinnery’s lighting design to make a neat if unremarkable setting for this piece.

Dardaris’ excellent Zelda is a wise, wry and utterly mature foil to Rachel’s spastic nature; she is measured where Rachel is erratic, thoughtful where Rachel is impulsive, and yet, somehow, the more daring one of the two. Why is that exactly? Because, in Zelda,  Treme has placed the self-awareness of age, and the confidence that comes with knowing that you can and do live with the choices you have made along the course of your life. Not quite so lucky is Rachel, who, with the delightful blindness of youth, is both blissfully arrogant and pathetically insecure. Played with consummate grace and skill by Frings, Rachel is smart, calculating, and more than a little manipulative, but also deeply damaged. From her opening cha-cha around Zelda’s “masculine” (it…really isn’t) office to her artful angling to make it into the prestigious NORB conference (an imagined ultra-prestigious scientific conference), Rachel starts the play swinging. She’s young, she’s eager, she’s got a radical new theory about female menstruation, she’s ready to take the scientific world (all five guys and that one lab rat) on by storm. There is just one problem. And it’s not her complete lack of scientific data or quantifiable research. It’s her boyfriend. But isn’t it always?

You see, Rachel doesn’t want to present her amazing new theory that’s going to change the world without her beau by her side. Zelda, like the rest of us, thinks that she’s insane. But while Zelda patiently points out to Rachel that if she presents with a man then people will automatically assume it’s all his idea, Rachel brings an equally strong counterpoint to the table, that is, she doesn’t want to die alone. Because despite years of progress and Betty Friedan and working mothers, it seems that to this day a woman can be successful in her career, or in her love life, but never ever in both. And God help us if there is another successful woman in your field, because, just like Highlander, there can only be one. Though Zelda tells Rachel, “you don’t have to destroy me to make room for yourself”, women are so consistently pitted against each other, in love and in life, that what 28 year old can have enough perspective to see her mother/mentor as an ally, not an enemy? It’s practically evolution.

Unfortunetely Treem’s deeply polarized play doesn’t so much combat these self-defeatist strategies as confirm them, making the tightly wound talks between these two women tennis matches, not conversations. Zelda and Rachel stand as two poles, pushing and pulling at each other, unable to find middle ground or deal with the real problem here, that is, that both of them have and will spend their lives developing theories to justify the existence of women, when, in fact, as one half of the population, we really shouldn’t need justification at all.

But where Treem’s smart but somehow lacking text fails, these two actresses succeed, and then some. The play itself is messy, often unclear, and sometimes flat-out contradictory, but the combination of Dardaris’ poise and Frings’ energy create a momentum that is fascinating and enthralling. Put aside all the heady insights and hypothetical hypothesis and what you have is a mother and a daughter trying desperately to see where one stops and the other starts, and hoping that they don’t make the same mistakes. The silent communication, the internal conflicts and the constant focus on each other draws the audience into this odd little family, forcing us to grimace at Rachel’s deeply insecure definition of love as “fucking magic. And like magic you have to believe in it. And always put the other person first”, and nod, satisfied, when Zelda reminds her that “The only opinion that needs to matter to you is yours”. Grammatically inappropriate? Sure. But they are scientists, not Literature professors, and besides, at least the sentiment is clear. It is the strong and engaging work of both of these tremendous and fantastically matched actresses that keep this play in motion, not its cluttered script or pseudo-scientific subject matter. It is Frings fantastically fractured but defiantly determined performance paired with Dardaris’ knock-out strength and elegance that make this play work.

Biology is, after all, the study of life. Just like theater. So it’s only natural that we selfish humans would be most attracted to human element, leaving all the rest behind. Theory is all well and good, but it’s no substitute for real life. And, as so often happens in theater, the words on the page are just words on a page. It’s the actors that make them worth saying. Interact Theatre Company’s production of The How and The Why runs from now until the 13th of November. Pick up tickets here.

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