Walking home from Dixon Place, the "laboratory for performance" in the Lower East Side, I'm not sure if I was any closer to understanding exactly what a 'War Lesbian' is than I was when I walked into the theater. And yet, what transpired over the course of a mere hour and a half was moving and revelatory in a way I don't think I've ever experienced before in the theater.
Inspired in large part by an Inuit myth in which a woman must go on a journey of self discovery after being banished from her home, War Lesbian encompasses a vast pastiche of cultural artifacts and influences. The play exists in a strange land, one that is both completely absurd and yet unsettling in its familiarity. Erin Markey is remarkable and fearless as Sedna, whom we watch transform from her birth as a thought sprung from the head of "Womb" (Jessica Almasy), her otherwise vacuous, mink-draped mother, into a militant goddess, constantly at war with herself and with legions of unseen enemies, desperately searching along her journey for a way to fill the gaping hole she feels inside.
Playwright Kristine Haruna Lee, the driving force behind interdisciplinary experimental theater troupe harunalee, evokes Gertrude Stein and her groundbreaking experimentation with language, engaging in poetic wordplay (Sedna is named when a character mistakes her mother's "Say what?") and groping to find a way to use language as a tool to better explain a different experience and vision of the world. By juxtaposing and ultimately marrying the mythic with the mundane, she creates something completely new -- and distinctly feminine.
If I attempt to describe the characters and moments at play in the sweeping narrative -- a pot smoking, underachieving beached whale (Amir Watcherman); fingers that, once severed, become loyal pet seals; a demonic Ellen DeGeneres (played by Lee herself) -- it may seem like an exercise in comic absurdity. It's impossible to accurately explain the tender, brilliant way that all of these elements are woven together to create something far larger than the sum of its parts. Fittingly, and crucial to creating the atmosphere, Lee and director Jordan Fein are working with one of the most committed and cohesive casts I've had the pleasure of seeing.
War Lesbian unfolds so curiously and rewardingly that it is best grappled with as an impressionistic whole: it is, perhaps, about the search for knowledge and purpose that can feel like a war, reminding us that the battles we fight on a personal scale can be just as important and impactful as those fought with armies. And have I mentioned that it's also a musical? Courtesy of composer Kathryn Hathaway and musical director Solomon Hoffman, melodies find their way into the narrative in a way that is surprising but never superfluous, adding to the comical and at times heartbreaking surreality of the play's universe.
War Lesbian felt, and still feels beseechingly important, and is a text that I will no doubt grapple with for years to come. For those of you still scratching your head, all I can say is just go. Experience it, find your own words, and start your own war.
War Lesbian is on stage at Dixon Place through December 20.