Last week was an outstanding one for experimental theater in Detroit, with the debut and short run of The Modern Woman, the newest creation from local theater troupe A Host of People (AHOP), as well as a weekend visit from members of the Double Edge Theatre, touring from their home base in rural Massachusetts with their original work Total Verrückt!
Co-directors Sherrine Azab and Jake Hooker helped facilitate a cast of 10 talented women (some of whom doubled and tripled their roles) in AHOP’s showcasing of the life and work of a series of influential but lesser-known female artists representing each decade from 1910 to the present. The Modern Woman mines the collective creative output of Emmy Hennings (1910s), Djuna Barnes and Josephine Baker (1920s), Mary Wigman and Katherine Dunham (1930s), Maya Deren (1940s), Chavela Vargas (1950s), Yvonne Rainer, Yoko Ono, and Phyllis Diller (1960s), Martha Rosler (1970s), Joan Jonas (1980s), Kathleen Hanna and Riot Grrrls (1990s), and Adrian Piper (2000s). The production was set in 10 rooms in Azab and Hooker’s residence on W. Grand Blvd, which is currently undergoing a radical renovation, with the audience divided into two groups and moving from room to room, either backward or forward in time.
The Modern Woman functions on multiple levels at it wrestles with the creative challenges of bringing to light the immense contributions of marginalized figures in the arts. First, it succeeds in both achieving a retroactive acknowledgement of these sometimes overlooked artists and offering an opportunity for a group of contemporary actresses to shine. Second, the show is an outright triumph of the Brechtian value of alienation, pushing the audience from room to room, facilitating a literal disruption of their passivity. Frequent interplay between performers and viewers — Riot Grrrls hand out the program in the form of handmade zines, actors in the “present day” room break for selfies with audience members — leaves the fourth wall as broken as the rest of the real walls in the space.
The choice of a residential home is interesting in and of itself as the staging ground for a play about artists who’ve struggled with their gender’s relationship to the domestic sphere. In just one of a number of memorable performances, Eleni Zaharopoulos hilariously recreates Martha Rosler’s “Semiotics of the Kitchen” (1975) in the actual kitchen. Ultimately, the production beautifully transforms the “home space” into a madhouse of female celebration and expression. Traveling with one audience group, you can hear echoes of the other on a different floor, creating the effect of a house haunted by ebullient female ghosts.
If the mood is triumphant, the takeaway is a little bittersweet. As one audience member noted, when exhorted by the Riot Grrrls to write on the walls in marker: “To the women artists who have paved the way … we still have a long road ahead … ” True though it may be, you can’t fault A Host of People for their good-faith effort to bring gender equity in the arts to the forefront.
By contrast, though the context of Total Verrückt! — co-hosted by Power House Productions and The Hinterlands at Play House, on the Detroit/Hamtramck border — is heavy, the message is uplifting. A one-woman show starring actress Joanna Caplan, who hustles through multiple characters and costume changes, Total Verrückt! is based on the writings of a young Dutch detainee named Etty Hillesum. Salvaged from her diary found along the train tracks between Westerbork and Auschwitz, Hillesum’s passages movingly depict life in German-occupied Amsterdam, as well as the daily trials and triumphs of life at the Westerbork camp, where a wide range of members of the Jewish creative community were detained by the Nazis. Developed with Double Edge Theatre Director Matthew Glassman over two years during Caplan’s internship and training with the theater, and continuing to evolve over a subsequent two and a half years of intermittent touring, the work grew out of Caplan’s own exploration of her Jewish identity and is presented as a cabaret performance.
While more mainstream fare, such as the popular musical Cabaret, leverages the nightlife culture of late Weimar Germany as an entry point into dealing with the dawning horror of the Nazi regime, Total Verrückt! makes no bones about addressing life inside Westerbork head on: all the action is staged on a somber set where barbed-wire fences double as prosceniums, and the same train tracks that signify death transports also serve as the backdrop for multilevel acrobatics by Caplan. When she ricochets around the complex set in an explosion of song, dance, and strip tease, and finally straps herself into a four-point ceiling mount for an aerial gymnastics routine that makes her look like a human marionette, it is by equal measures entertaining, impressive, and disturbing.
One is left with the sense that even in the harshest and most inhumane circumstances, art serves to liberate its practitioners and allow them to live beyond the confines of their mortal experience — a sentiment to which the subjects of The Modern Woman can no doubt relate.