Review of The Red Tent, Yale Cabaret
If you want to see theater in New Haven that isn’t simply a play, you’ve got to go to shows brought to the Yale Repertory Theatre as part of No Boundaries, or you’ve got to go to the Yale Cabaret. The Red Tent, conceived and directed by Sohina Sidhu and playing at the Cab for two more shows tonight, explores certain bodily themes with minimal dialogue and much movement. More pointedly, one could say: The Red Tent returns theater to ritual.
Theater, it’s mostly agreed, began as ritual, even in the West. The Red Tent keeps open lines of communication to cultures where ritual and performance mingle. And ritual here manages to invoke the presence of “the Goddess” without propelling us to thoughts of New Agey ashrams in California. Maybe one or two of the voice-overs does, but the space created by Annie Dauber, with its enfolding red drapes, the moody lighting by Nic Vincent, and the spacey projections by Yaara Bar put us in a receptive state for a ritualized process choreographed by the company. The show presents an enactment of how women create community in celebrating one of the most elemental aspects of being female: menarche and the recurrent bodily rhythm of fertility it announces.
Some aspects of the body, polite society would have us think, should be kept private, but The Red Tent arrives fully informed by the view that the private is political, if only because women, in becoming equals with men before the law, still have to find a way to make the specific condition of being female not a special, lesser status. The “affliction”—as it is often called—of menstruation, to say nothing of the demands of child-birth, are simply some of the facts of life, and yet, tampon commercials notwithstanding, menstruation still seems an unacknowledged truth in most stories about women in film and television and fiction. While no one who is a woman or has ever lived intimately with one can have any doubts about the significance of the monthly event, our culture generally ignores it as if it never happens (though, of course, it’s big news if it doesn’t).
The Red Tent kicks off dramatically with a young woman (Amandla Jahava) beside herself at having her first period and being sent to a tent so as to be isolated in her “unclean” state. She’s freaking out, and into her abject state arrive emissaries of a more benign tradition, women who initiate her into a shared condition of being.
As an unascribed quotation in the production’s playbill has it: “Then she had an epiphany: ‘Menstruation is not a taboo, but a power for women.’” The power, in The Red Tent, comes from the mother goddess, and slide projections alert us to stages in the process by which a woman becomes a goddess. It’s not a question of divinity so much as a matter of aligning oneself with the forces of the natural world. In a world—ours—in which the natural forces are increasingly out of whack, the notion that there might be a more geocentric way to understand our place in it is welcome. Such won’t be achieved, Sidhu’s play helps us see, by women proving they can be “just like” men, but perhaps by understanding better what being a woman means.
The five women in the piece are given elemental roles: Water (Alex Cadena), Earth (Danielle Chaves), Air (Amandla Jahava), Fire (Kineta Kunutu), Cosmic (Sohina Sidhu). I confess that the distinctions were a bit lost on me, but that’s perhaps because I wasn’t looking for them. Or that might be due to the fact that the women, all gowned very suitably in white robes with tasteful accessories, are not differentiated in an overtly archetypal manner. As portrayed, the women did have distinct attitudes, with Air the acolyte and Water with a suitable mutability, and Fire seeming the warmest. At one point, two of the elements war with knives—a segment handled well by Fight Coordinator Jonathan Higginbotham—and at another point, all the goddesses sat about articulating the nature of their goddessness in a scene both comic and poetic.
The notion of the three phases of the goddess (which I remember from my Robert Graves)—youth, maturity, and senescence—are invoked by the phases of the show, with the latter stage evoked very memorably by a song, begun suitably enough by Earth, about “the weight of me” breaking a rocking chair. The song is a lament that becomes, as all the women join in, the kind of strong identification with the inevitable and the elemental that one finds too seldom in our secular and commercial culture.
The Red Tent presents theater as something that happens to an audience, not simply as something we watch. With carefully modulated musical and visual accompaniment, the show is technically accomplished and, with the mutable physicality of its performers, fascinating to see. The final procession of the five achieves the emphatic grace and uplift that many a religious ceremony would be glad of inspiring.
The Red Tent
Conceived and directed by Sohina Sidhu
Choreography: the Company; Sound: Megumi Katayama, Kathy Ruvuna; Lighting: Nic Vincent; Costumes: Rachel Gregory; Scenic Design: Annie Dauber; Projections: Yaara Bar; Technical Direction: LT Gourzong; Dramaturgs: Michael Breslin, Ashley Chang; Fight Director: Jonathan Higginbotham; Stage Manager: Laura Cornwall; Producer: Lisa D. Richardson
The company: Alex Cadena; Danielle Chaves; Amandla Jahava; Kineta Kunutu; Sohina Sidhu
March 23-25, 2017