By Eva Phillips
Poetry and myth are predicated on violence enacted upon women. Brutal possession, hostile silencing or neglect, hateful shame, and outright destruction of femininity drive so many of our stories, that this violence is a sort of vernacular of our cultural memory. The transmogrification of women portrayed so audacious as to refuse the unwanted advances of a man (or deity) in farm animals, massive birds, trees etc. is rote in so many of our inherited tales. More often than not, these forced transformations, acts of violence in their own right, are simply measures to make patriarchy’s unruly desirousness more containable.
What is perhaps the penurious legends built on violence, this Leda and the Swan-esque logic that dominates our cultural, literary memory are repeated incessantly in our everyday. Women’s reputations impugned and ravished for the sake of preserving men or the patriarchy’s “integrity;” femininity broken, maimed, and usurped for the sake of a cruel “balance.” Women are crystallized in mythology, scarcely allowed treatment that is evolved beyond mythic predecessors.
In Zoe Sorrell’s exploratory, multi-genre/multimedia project, My Own Route, Sorrell examines her identity as an artist, woman, and creator within the framework of women’s treatment and perception in history and myth. A profoundly gifted and innovative flutist, Sorrell uses her instrument as a vessel of musical and empowerment and articulation, with the flute translating much of the rage, disdain, hopefulness, yearning and more that stir riotously within Sorrell and countless other women.
The flute is, as Sorrell poetically explains and weaves throughout the seventy minute production, particularly meaningful in explicating and reclaiming the narratives and voices of women so routinely violenced and abnegated. In one of the myths that most typifies the regard for women and femininity, Pan, god of the wild in Greek lore (a president of a frat, if you will), tenaciously pursues an utterly uninterested wood nymph (who fiercely prized her chastity), Syrinx. As she finds refusing his advances is futile (try to quell your shock, ladies), she flees, only to be transformed and carved into a flute by the greedy god. The metaphor is maybe a bit overwrought in imagistic liberties, but the point is viscerally clear for women.
Sorrell was struck by this visceral point when studying a Debussy composition about the myth years ago, and her outrage at the familiarity of Syrinx’s story (and the lack of change from myth to the modern) catalyzed Sorrell embarking on a multiyear creative project that would become My Own Route. The piece incorporates several compositions for flute, several of which were written by Sorrell, that are interspersed with textual excerpts, original monologues stylistically reminiscent of spoken word, and physical performance/movement art that serves to punctuate both Sorrell’s emotional journey and the progression of women throughout metaphoric time and space.
Though My Own Route uses the Syrinx/Pan story as a centralizing motif, Sorrell’s experimental production is so powerful for how she intertwines myth and history with modern tales, and searing personal anecdotes. She therein not only accentuates the richness of each medium she utilizes–whether that’s flute performance, oration, physical narration, etc.–but emphasizes the interconnectivity of women’s experiences, and the hope for solidarity My Own Route promises. In her most impassioned portion, Sorrell delves into the still raw wound of the Christine Blasey Ford, and uses a piece of her own composition to articulate the myriad emotions surrounding the issue. The brilliantly composed and played flute music exquisitely commingles every sentiment and emotion that arose chaotically for most women (and survivors of sexual assault of every gender identity) throughout the agonizing trial—hurt, frustration, sympathy, fear, repulsion–with cutting precision. Sorrell’s composition is at once sublimely blithe and jarringly furious, and her ability to capture the gamut of emotions is a testament to her abilities as a musician and overall performer.
Moreover, Sorrell punctuates her composition with passionately repeated incantations that announce the blistering heart of her work. She repeats, more urgently with each ceasura, phrases and words pleading for recognition of respect of women’s humanity, most strikingly “I am not culture”–a haunting exclamation when one regards it contextually with the phenomenon that surrounded Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and so many other cases and stories (and indeed, myths) that sensationalize trauma, violence, violation, and degradation of women. When Sorrell cries out, she profoundly addresses the way in which women’s bodies and emotions are so often a locus of cultural growth, dialogue, debate, spectacle and torment. If a women never speaks out, she lets herself be a victim; and if she does speak out, she must understand it is now her responsibility to bear the weight of cultural and societal judgement.
As she does throughout her performance, Sorrell examines how the beauty and eloquence of music, specifically flute music, has historically been weaponized, in a way, to cloak or disguise the brutal material a composition referenced, or the vile history surrounding a composition. Using her mastery of her instrument and her astonishing, discipline-defying grasp of history and intertexuality, Sorrell announces rage, trauma, triggered duress that women are inculcated to expect to be “normal,” by reclaiming her instrument and her art, stripping bare music’s beauty to expose the violence it encompasses. Sorrell’s work in My Own Route is so remarkable because it reclaims without compromising, while she uses the tools of oppression and sublimation to present a stunning, cohesive piece that attests to her incredible gifts and overwhelming intellect.
The radical ingenuity and strident feminist vision that characterizes My Own Route speaks to the greater impact and messages at play in off the WALL’s thirteen season. A bastion of provocative and unconventional theatre, off the WALL yet again promises a phenomenally riveting, emotionally challenging season of shows that defy the expectations of performance and drama. Much like Sorrell’s My Own Route, off the WALL’s forthcoming works blend genre, style and narrative structure in ways that allow for visceral evocation and remarkable unique sentiment. And, much like My Own Route, these forthcoming works overwhelmingly provide a platform for and exploration of women’s narratives and voices, and epitomize the mission of off the
At the beginning of October, off the WALL’s season will open with Not Medea (Oct. 4-19th) a
powerful piece by playwright Allison Gregory. Not Medea, which premiered in 2016 at The Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, delves unflinchingly into motherhood and femininity through a fascinating kaleidoscope of myth, intertexuality, and allegory. Drew Leigh Williams makes her off the WALL debut as Woman, whose one night escape from being a mother at the theaters sours quickly as she discovers that not only is she going to sit through Medea–Euripides’ tragedy about Medea’s murderous vengeance on Jason, his wife, and her own children–but that the play is, shall we say, more interactive than she had anticipated. off the WALL Executive Artistic Director Virginia Wall Gruenert states that “[Not Medea] is not a comedy, but there is a lot of comedy in it,” and, indeed, Gregory’s production is as pointedly, unflinchingly funny as it is tirelessly invested in showing the complex truths of commingling self-identity and motherhood. Not Medea also stars Allan Snyder as Woman’s Husband, Jason (importantly the same name of the lover in Euripides’ Medea), and Elizabeth Boyke as part of the Chorus, and will be directed by Allison M. Weakland.
Dan Ruth’s A Life Behind Bars (Oct. 24th-26th) is a testament to the fact that one-person-shows are an ever-evolving medium. Once caricatured as obnoxious, self-aggrandizing platforms for artists or flailing stand-up comedians to wax poetic simple so an audience would listen, one-person-shows been arduously developed by performers to be modernistic, multigenre and multimedia artistic expressions. off the WALL has consecrated itself as one of the foremost venues in Pittsburgh for one-person-shows, like Sorrell’s, to find a home and very enthusiastic audiences. Dan Ruth’s mini-masterpiece about toiling and drinking in the many eccentric bars (and with the many eccentric characters) of pre-gentrification New York, returns to off the WALL by popular demand after its resounding success last year. Ruth’s satirical yet poignant memoir-esque show celebrates the unconventional narratives and methods one can use to find resilience, redemption and hope.
Gallows humor can be a real saving grace, especially in the midst of a murder mystery. In yet another innovative, genre-defying one-person-show, Alec Silberblatt explores guilt, deviousness, intrigue, and, of course, telekinetic interactions with the dead in The Mon Valley Medium (Nov. 8, 9). A community demands answers in the wake of a horrifying murder, and, shockingly, a medium who claims to communicate with the deceased victim is in no way, shape, or form the salubrious presence anyone needs. As utter chaos ensues, Silberblatt–who wrote and will perform Mon Valley Medium–explores the complicated, and unanticipated, paths to and manifestations of redemption.
In another back-by-popular demand feature, the holiday extravaganza, The Carols (Nov. 29-
Dec. 14th) returns to Carnegie Stage after a phenomenally successful run in 2017. A peculiarly charming story of three categorically unique, seemingly disillusioned women–three sisters, an out-of-work comedian from the Catskills, a curmudgeonly (nay, Scrooge-like?) landlord, and a pianists with a helluva limp, The Carols hilariously and poignantly examines the fortitude of female friendships and the miraculous ability to find positive in the strangest, most disheartening of situations and environments. With book and lyrics written by Jennifer Childs and music by Monica Stephenson, The Carols is a celebration of female artistry, female voices, female talent, and the unexpected harmoniousness of female-centric communities–that also spreads Holiday cheer in a fresh way.
Opening the new year with a stirring, multidisciplinary journey into identity, Natalia Zukerman’s The Women Who Rode Away (Jan. 30 & 31; Feb. 1) makes its regional premiere at off the WALL as the first production of 2020. A child of a prodigiously gifted family–she is daughter to Israeli-American violinist/conductor Pinchas Zukerman and flutist/writer Eugenia Zukerman, and sister to famed opera performer Arianna Zukerman–Natalia Zukerman has built an impressive career as a nimble-fingered, multi-style guitar virtuoso and brilliant singer/songwriter, releasing six albums that emphasize her soulful folk, blues, and bluegrass sensibilities, and her astounding grasp on intimate, mythic and metaphysical themes. In The Women Who Rode Away, Zukerman combines her lyrical and musical gifts with her talents as a muralist and visual artist to produce a heart-rending storytelling experience that honors both her own pilgrimage through life and self-acceptance, and the many women who directly and indirectly guided and helped her journey. With echoes of Sorrell’s My Own Route, Zukerman’s one-woman production deftly employs several medias to immerse audience members in the emotional and discursive processes undertaken and shared by women that in many ways transcend explanation.
In the penultimate show of off the WALL’s 2019-2020 season, Pittsburgh playwright Lissa Brennan presents her eviscerating, important original work Hoard (Mar. 6-21). Brennan’s play, which will be co-produced by Cell Theatre in New York (and begin its run there in April 2020), is a bold, compassionate look at the infinite consequences of trauma through a woman whose domestic surroundings and mental state are quite literally cluttered with the marginalia of trauma and anguish. Hoard follows her grapples with mental health and stability, as well as those of the woman who puts herself in this cluttered world to try and save this woman and, invariably, herself.
off the WALL will conclude their phenomenal season with another return production, as Susan Stein’s astronomically popular and evisceratingly profound Etty (May 7-9) takes the stage after its run February of 2019. As an act of homage, celebration, and declaration of the inexcusable violences of history, Stein took the letters and diaries of Dutch native Etty Hillesum, who perished at Auschwitz at the age of 29, to create a raw, frank, sensual, incisive,
and unbelievably sympathetic ode to the legacy of a woman who refused to relinquish her fullness of life–even in the face of the most unspeakable atrocities and imminent peril. Etty is the ideal conclusion for off the WALL’s provocative season: it is an unyielding, multidimensional exploration into the remarkable heart and mind of a woman who made a stand simply by being her complete self; and it is testament to the powerful legacy of female community and artistry in upholding and extolling their outstanding stories.
For more tickets and other information about off the WALL’s 2019-2020 season, visit their homepage.
For information on Zoe Sorrell’s performances, background, and future project, visit her site.