Sometimes it's not so simple to get your voice heard. Sometimes you have to fight for it. And that's exactly what the EstroGenius Festival has been doing for fifteen years. Despite losing their home with theater company Manhattan Theater Source in 2011, the team behind this expansive celebration of women's voices in theater, dance, and the visual arts is still going strong.
On Monday night I saw “Andi’s Night” at the Fourth Street Theater in the East Village, one of three short play programs, this curated by producer Andi Cohen. I had the chance to chat with her after the show (check out the full interview here); as she so eloquently put it, theater forces you to confront issues and place yourself in the position of actors, potentially more so than the typically passive enjoyment of television or film. Because of this, discomfort, and confusion are felt all the more acutely, and in Andi's program, these feelings come in spades. There's certainly levity and humor, and none of the plays seem to take themselves too seriously, but those moments come sandwiched in between an overall theme of anxiety and, as Andi suggested (borrowing the title of one of the plays), invasion.
The five plays develop by throwing people, almost all strangers, into strange, unknown, and uncomfortable situations, leaving each in turn to explore what happens between us when stripped of the familiarity of our comfort zones. In my favorite play of the evening, Invasion, written by Lisa Bruna and directed by Elizabeth Ostler, a high-powered executive gets trapped in an elevator with her far more free-spirited neighbor. In I Have It, written by Bekah Brunstetter and directed by Melissa Skirboll, a first date is nail-bitingly awkward because both have something in common that’s difficult to discuss; they both have an STD. Through paper-thin walls in the first case, or through carefully tailored dating websites in the second, the strangers know things about each other that are too personal, that they wouldn’t usually know. In two other plays -- Glutton for Punishment, written by Catherine Noah and directed by Angela Dumlao, and A Bottle of Vodka, written by Connie Schindewolf and directed by Sarah Chichester -- people are presented with situations they believe they know more about than they actually do. Two alcoholics wonder if they’re in hell when they find themselves trapped in a room with only a bottle of vodka that they can’t touch without being shocked; a fair-trade, eco-friendly woman is confused when she finds herself face to face with Satan in an afterlife she was not expecting.
“What would people think if they saw Satan meditate?”, the Devil muses drolly. In this vein of out of the blue humor, the five playwrights all have fun with the unexpected, and hairpin twists and shocking revelations make for an exciting performance. So in the fifth play, Snow White Zombie, written by Brent Lengel and directed by Sara Stevens, Sleeping Beauty becomes a flesh-eating zombie who craves Prince Charming less as a love interest and more as a tasty snack, and you remember that you're in a space when anything can happen, and anything will.
One difficulty with shorts programs tends to be that by the time you settle into a play and its rhythm, and start to become acquainted with the actors, it's over and we're off to the next one. Many of these plays could stand a little more time to breathe, and the transitions between them can feel too abrupt, but ultimately, despite five separate creative teams of writers, directors, and actors, the plays are ambitious and thought-provoking while still remaining self aware and appropriate to the limitations of a small venue and budget. They fit together in a strong, well curated whole.
Women have come a long way from the strangling and static limitations once afforded to them as a wife, mother, secretary, wilting flower, or some combination thereof. But we still have a ways to go in creative strong, productive dialogues about women and for women, and as EstroGenius proves, the theater is a wonderful place to start.
The EstroGenius Festival continues through November 2. For more information, visit https://estrogenius.org/
The 15th Annual EstroGenius Festival runs through November 2nd at various venus around the city.