30 September 2006

The Female of the Species

The Female of the Species
Melbourne Theatre Company
2 September 2006
The Playhouse, The Arts Centre


If you love a good “he’s behind you” gag, or you appreciate a deconstructed joke about Derrida deconstructing a piece of toast, you should enjoy the The Female of the Species. Joanna Murray-Smith’s script is witty, funny and intelligent. It is easy to laugh with, but a difficult play to enjoy.

The Female of the Species is a farce about the ironies and hypocrisies of feminism. Farce meaning the comedic tradition and structure, complete with mistaken identity, innuendo and unbelievable situations all liberally sprinkled with vagina jokes and the obligatory oral sex ‘gag’. It is also full of very witty and sophisticated jokes about the history of feminist literature (make sure you look at the wonderful book covers). If you don’t know your Dworkin from your de Beauvoir, there is a reading list in the program.

Ironically, the deliberate irony of combining two styles of comedy is unsuccessful and frustrating. The play opens with a delightful portrait of famous feminist-intellect Margot Mason and her young nemesis Molly. When Molly pulls out a gun, the structural and directorial descent to farce is immediate and almost …well.…farcical.

The direction and acting are uneven and reflect the conflicting styles. Director Patrick Nolan draws on every expected tradition of the farce genre. The characters find themselves in sexually compromising positions, situations are resolved as new characters suddenly appear through the french doors, and each time the plot loses momentum – a gun is fired to wake the audience up. I am unsure if this was meant to be a satirical deconstruction of farce, or just lazy direction. The final moments of the show do detour from the expected structure, but this moment fizzles, rather than jolts.

Conflicting acting styles add to the frustration. Some cast play with the farce, complete with sly glances at the audience, while others play it as a fourth wall drama with some funny lines.
Nonetheless, it is the engaging performances from all cast members that make The Female of the Species an enjoyable evening. Sue Ingleton is the standout. I’m sure many members of the audience were cringing or cheering, as they recognised Margot. Margot is also the most broadly drawn character and given a real (if not fulfilled) emotional arc. Roz Hammond (as her daughter) and Bojana Novakovic (as her captor) ably support her. Each character is original and tightly drawn, but their reactions and behaviours were frustratingly expected and clichéd. Roz continues to prove herself as a wonderful comedian (or comedienne – depending on which wave of feminist thought you chose), using the farcical style to full advantage. Bojana plays her character straight. Both styles work well, but not together.

The male characters are far less believable than the women. Again, I am unsure if it was meant to be satirical, but they seemed to fall straight from the pages of “Stereotyped Men and the Women who Love or Hate Them”. There was the namby-pamby SNAG; the angry, but sensitive black guy; and the big old queen. Each did exactly what we expect these characters to do if they appear in a daytime soap.

Murray-Smith’s script is a very funny observation of the impact of feminist thought. The jokes and the performances sustain the evening. However, I would have like to see it directed with more purpose and irony, rather than indulgence.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

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