Sugar and Spite

Review of The Secretaries at Yale Cabaret

Yale Cabaret’s production of The Five Lesbian Brothers’ The Secretaries, directed by Melanie Field, is a romp through the tropes of female exploitation—or rather “sexploitation,” the term coined to cover certain sexually charged films of the 1960s; a particular sub-genre appealed to the lurid fascination with situations where women dominate women: prison, nurse-training, convents and all-girls schools, and here, a secretarial pool at a lumber camp in Cooney, Oregon. The never-seen male boss maintains nominal control over his female employees, whereas, in reality, at the helm is middle-management mastermind Susan Curtis, played by Chalia La Tour with steely élan and a fanatical gleam in her eye that is the scariest part of this fever dream of female bonding.

The girls in the pool are easily recognizable—and exploited—types, played with campy brio by the four other female actors (with Field and La Tour) of the Yale School of Drama’s class of 2016: Jenelle Chu, as Patty (the new girl who just wants to be liked), Annelise Lawson, as Peaches (the masochist who needs to diet and pines for food), Annie Hägg, as Ashley (the vicious reigning Secretary of the Month), and Shaunette Renée Wilson, as Dawn (the resident lesbian). Doubtless, you’ve known these types since high school, but did you ever wonder what they might get up to if left entirely to their own devices?

Annelise Lawson (Peaches), Annie Hagg (Ashley), Chalia La Tour (Susan), Jenelle Chu (Patty), Shaunette Renee Wilson (Dawn)

Annelise Lawson (Peaches), Annie Hagg (Ashley), Chalia La Tour (Susan), Jenelle Chu (Patty), Shaunette Renee Wilson (Dawn)

What’s most fun about the production—which features mood-inducing sound effects and music by Kate Marvin, a battery of trippy projections by Yana Biryukova, and dance sequences and fight sequences and bikinied women drenched in blood at its close—is its gleeful misogyny. Women here are the sum total of their obsessions: losing weight, being liked, making out, looking good, and, mostly, pleasing Big Sister, the den mother who rules them with rules and gives them one night a month to run amok on. That night is Kill Night and each month a male lumberjack—with an array of names like Buzz, Woody, Chip—bites the dust. One girl or another gets his plaid jacket as trophy and all is well.

The women are almost the reverse of The Stepford Wives fantasy—robotic perfect mates for successful males—except these women don’t antagonize men nearly as much as they bedevil each other. What the authors of the play satirize is the way that women struggle most with an ideal of Perfect Woman (which includes being the perfect employee and role model) that women foist upon themselves and each other, and then undermine each other in trying to live up to. The play also makes manifest certain psychological impasses that make this kind of group mentality work: simultaneously hating and loving one’s tormentor/master/rival, identifying with the success of others and resenting it, needing to be “one” with the others but also oneself. The many wrinkles and seams—to say nothing of tears and stains—in the quilt of feminist togetherness are exposed here with tightly coiled comedy.

The actors are well-matched to their roles: Chu plays Patty with that mix of fecklessness and guile that is, well, kinda irresistible; Lawson’s Peaches is self-effacing, seemingly, but also a ticking time-bomb, who clearly needs the release of Kill Night; Hägg’s Ashley wears a look of perpetual frustration and alternately snarls and soaks up reassurances on her beauty; Wilson’s Dawn wears pants to work (as does the boss) and plays up her predatory role—while, as Buzz, Wilson is a likeable guy eager to date the eager-to-date Patty; La Tour’s Susan exposes her layers of manipulation with ruthless efficiency. Altogether, it’s a hoot.

Chalia La Tour (Susan Curtis), Shaunette Renee Wilson (Dawn Midnight)

Chalia La Tour (Susan Curtis), Shaunette Renee Wilson (Dawn Midnight)

Audience members will no doubt find their favorite moment in terms of resonance or distortion: perhaps when Susan collects all the girls’ used tampons (of course, they’re all on the same cycle)? Or maybe the frenzy of Kill Night? Or perhaps Susan's seduction of Dawn? Or an awkward “break the ice” game of Twister? For me, it had to be Susan’s goading of Patty at the wheel of a car, a scene that goes from 20 mph to over-the-top in minutes, and is followed by the memorable “Run, Patty, Run” sequence, complete with “headlights.”

A ghoulish play, in its way (and thus perfect for Halloween weekend), The Secretaries delves into the unease of being working girls by means of slapstick and caricature, provoking catharsis through laughter at situations which might, even now, be too true to type.


The Secretaries
By The Five Lesbian Brothers
Directed by Melanie Field

Scenic Designer: Jean Kim; Costume Designer: Asa Benally; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Green; Sound Designer: Kate Marvin; Projection Designer: Yana Biryukova; Dramaturg: Ashley Chang; Stage Manager: Emely Selina Zepeda; Technical Directors: Kelly Fayton; Kat Wepler; Producer: Emika Abe

Yale Cabaret
October 29-31, 2015