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War Lesbian: In brief
The fearlessly fierce Erin Markey stars in a new musical by Kristine Haruna Lee and Kathryn Hathaway, based on an Inuit folktale about a belligerent outcast. Jordan Fein directs.
War Lesbian: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Even before I get into the specifics of Kristine Haruna Lee's War Lesbian, I must tell you: It's a mess. Granted, it's at Dixon Place, an invaluable incubator for gorgeous messes, but even when approached with generous expectations, it goes on too long and collapses into a queasy “love before war” triviality. So where do my three-star rating and lasting affection for it come from? Well, the nice thing about stars is that they don't have to shine steadily—they can twinkle. There's ambition and scope in Lee's musical, and throughout it there are flashes of spectacle, imagination, humor and incandescent fury. Lee's pop-opera collaboration with composer Kathryn Hathaway flickers with occasional excellence even when its pace sags; in its darkest moments you can always find some performer or some naughty bit of stage business shining away in a corner.
We start in an Alaska of crumpled white paper (director Jordan Fein creates distinct worlds out of garbage and attitude), where daffy goddess Womb (Jessica Almasy) plays abstractedly with her hair. The band is tucked under the balcony overhang, and over by the piano, two space-eskimo–chic crooners (Stephanie A. Hsu and Preston Martin) sing wry commentary. As Womb lounges on the floor balancing a Marie Antoinette wig on her head, and trying—really trying—to have a single thought, she is annoyed and dominated by another goddess, Ellen (Lee herself), a short-haired, cheerful icon who seems very much like a certain talk-show host. Ellen's smile is predatory. “I'm a very specific kind of comfort food,” she grits through her grin.
Womb finally manages to birth a thought-baby: Sedna, a version of the Inuit sea goddess, as played by inimitable, terrifying force Erin Markey. Sedna makes even other gods nervous. A giantess, she has a voracious sexual appetite—literally eating a male playmate alive—so the beer-bellied, fur-wearing god Mitch (Derek Smith) decides to take her out to sea and dump her there. Luckily, the only book Sedna has ever read happens to be the Futurist Manifesto, so she puts her time in the murky, underwater Underworld (possibly a stand-in for our own world) to anti-establishment, militant, rabble-rousing use.
On and on the shaggy-goddess tale wends, as Sedna chats with her friend Beached Whale (sweet Amir Wachterman), does a training montage with manic moon god Tatqim (Andrew R. Butler) and falls in love with her neighbor Qualertetang (Cyndi Perczek). Her main love, though, is revolution. But what is the fight she's leading? What is the war she wants? The musical stays infuriatingly vague on this point, and the show starts to have the “and then and then” quality of stories you used to make up for your toys.
In her script, Lee notes her interest in Futurism (the presence of the Manifesto has tipped her hand), but she's as slippery about her revolution as the Futurists were in their day. If she wants to explode all of art—as they did—then why is Hathaway's music so conventional, so singable, so sweet? If it's the “consumable” lesbian identity (as personified by Ellen) that she hates so much, then why does Markey just vaguely demand “a war in the name of dogs and misfits and other random things”? There's a deep disagreement in the show between the Modernism of its impulse and the show's own postmodern structure. Markey, her jaw cocked like a pistol, tries to muscle the two together, but the serious and the silly here are a few drafts away from getting along.
So I'm afraid War Lesbian does waver, showing us something bright then snatching it away again, and constantly blocking its own luminosity. Here's an odd thing, though. Several days have passed since I saw the show, and I somehow remember much of the damn thing with delight: the sweet, sensual relationship between Qualertetang and Sedna; the plaintive, 11-o'clock ballad “Black Black Sky”; the chorus's charm; the jovial entrance of Mitch, god of hammers, penises and dumb ideas. And most important, there was the can-do spirit of a beautifully sung musical produced on a shoestring. I can see in my notes that the show frequently taxed my patience, and yet I'm glad I went. Some sort of magic must be at work.—Theater review by Helen Shaw
THE BOTTOM LINE: An ambitious opera about an Inuit sea goddess floats and sinks in equal measure.