Last week, Metamaiden and I traveled to Denver to see the new Disney musical adaptation of the animated movie Frozen. It was, shall we say, a less than completely positive experience. But, I’ve written thousands of words about that already. In my last post about it, I wrote that I was going to support a feminist off-Broadway play to offset my inadvertent support of what Disney had done to Frozen. GYNX is that play.
Alicen Grey, playwright and producer of GYNX, saw my post, and offered us a recording of their opening night performance. So, Metamaiden and I sat down in Albuquerque on the afternoon of Sunday, 8/27/17, and watched this radical feminist theatre revelation while the final performance of its current run was happening in NYC. It was playing at the Hudson Guild Theater as part of the 2017 NY Summerfest. GYNX is also a Semi-Finalist in the MultiStages 2017 New Works Contest, and it’s not hard to see why.
GYNX was everything I hoped it would be, and more. I felt like Alicen had lived my life, and was seeking my revenge. The play is powerful, haunting and cathartic all at once. It’s impossible to be unaffected by it. It ends with a question that you’ll think about for a long time, if you aren’t already thinking about it.
As GYNX begins we see a teenage girl, Marie (Biance V Amato), alone in a bar, where she meets an older man, Phil (Carl Zurhorst, who plays all of the male characters). As they talk, she roofies his drink. The scene then moves to a clinical setting, where Phil is unconscious, strapped to a gurney. He is surrounded by Marie, a self-taught hacker and former child porn star whose father was her manager, and the four other women who make up the show’s vigilante gang: Gynx (Jillian Stevens), their mysterious leader and self-appointed avenging angel; Petie (Alex Beechko), a teenage lesbian who was raped, outed and kicked out of her parents’ home all in one night, which has left her questioning everything; Amy (Jane West, who also plays Petie’s friend Taylor), an impulsive, funny former child prostitute whose uncle was her pimp; and Natasha (Maria Loraine), an intelligent, logical, loner activist who does living room abortions and works as a cleaning lady at a medical school by day.
As Phil is waking up, the women confront him with his crime: He is a pedophile. And his punishment: They are about to castrate him. Phil doesn’t take the news well, but the castration continues anyway, just as a rape would.
From there, the story alternates between Petie narrating the overall story while on trial for her part in the forced castration of rapists, and scenes from the vigilantes’ revenge spree, showing how Gynx was able to lure the four women into her confidence, how they managed to maintain their secrecy, and how it all begins to fall apart. Gynx maintains ruthless control over the other women, planning every detail of their lives and their vigilantism.
All four of these women are at the very bottom of the socioeconomic food chain, shoved there by society and family, leaving them vulnerable. When Gynx seemingly offers these lonely, young women the home, love, and support that they’ve never had, it’s a no-brainer to accept. It’s a no-brainer to grow to trust Gynx and accept her as the approving authority figure they’ve never had, but crave. She slowly reels them in, using the methods both abusers and cults use to brainwash their targets into becoming dependent on them. With Petie, the lesbian character, Gynx (Stevens) adds a subtle seductiveness to her manner. With Natasha, an adult, Gynx offers respect for her abilities and ideas, which have been ignored by the world up until now.
All of this is handled with verbal honesty, but no graphic visuals and little in the way of overly graphic verbal descriptions. It’s still intense, and potentially triggering for sensitive individuals. Men are kidnapped and surgically mutilated against their will. We know it’s happening, but we can’t see it. The women’s pasts as rape victims, a child porn star, and a child prostitute are discussed in (mostly) non-graphic terms. No rape occurs on stage. There is some on-stage violence.
The stage is a black box set up, with minimal props: 4 folding chairs, a gurney, a couple of benches, and small items such as surgical masks. The costumes (designed by Lily Prentice, along with the set concepts) are simple and neutral-colored. The production makes up for this minimalism with their creative use of lighting and sound, designed by Kathrine R Mitchell and Caroline Eng, respectively. With the addition of simple, effective lighting that varies between color and oppressively institutional; and a subtle soundscape that slowly spirals into madness, the story itself is able to shine through.
Due to the subject matter, this is a challenging, difficult show. At first, I found myself unable to examine GYNX deeply and honestly. If there is anything that I would criticize about the production and acting, it’s that I think they suffer from the same inability to emotionally dig as deeply as possible into the subject matter. For all that we’re seeing and hearing about horrific crimes and surgical mutilations, we never see any blood, metaphorical or literal. The colors stay cool and muted, other than a red tint to the lights. Most of the characters stay emotionally removed from their crimes. The acting is very good, but I’ve been and known many survivors of both crime and abuse. I never stopped knowing that these were actors acting. We’re never forced to face the realities of what the women have gone through, so that we understand why they would resort to such extreme measures.
The castrations are played somewhat for laughs, somewhat seriously. The lack of retaliation from men remains a fantasy. The “vagilantes” see themselves as superheroes, and this is a superhero fantasy where the bad guys are easily vanquished. It would add to the complexity of the situation to not only show the side of it where some men cower in fear, but also the side where other men would control and attack women even more in an attempt to regain their “deserved” dominance.
As the show stands now, the cold, clinical tones of the production all work together as a whole, and serve to invoke an institutional feel that fits the emotional remove Gynx encourages in her accomplices. The director, Maridee Slater, added some immersive elements such as having Natasha hand out DIY abortion zines to the audience, and giving the men in the audience face-hiding masks to wear during a women-only club scene, that serve to make the audience part of the show.
But I never forgot that I was watching a story. Small changes could draw the audience further in. The sound already expresses underlying emotions that only Petie is showing openly. Adding targeted warm tones to the rest of the art design to more fully evoke the fear, degradation and blood that the men experience within the show, and that the women experienced in the past, without making it graphic, could be effective. Allowing the women other than Petie to fully express emotions like (non-sexual) passion, sadness, loss and fear could reveal cracks in their facades that would make them more relatable. Showing the women bonding and forming a family, including Gynx, would make the characters and the ending more compelling.
The five women in the cast are diverse in age, size, and color, a welcome change from most theater pieces. The six cast members do a good job with the material. Jillian Stevens gives Gynx a subtly seductive quality, seeming almost like something other than human as she speaks of being a wolf, “hunting as wolves do.” Alex Beechko is relatable and endearing as Petie goes through the emotional and philosophical whirlwind of the play. Maria Loraine captures Natasha’s world-weariness with a matter-of-fact attitude and grounded presence. Jane West brings a fantastic energy to Amy, always enthusiastic, giving you the sense that she’s up for anything. As Taylor, she seems just like a real girl who blames herself for something someone else did to her. Bianca V. Amato, as Marie, pulls off the feeling of having experienced objectification from the people who were supposed to protect her. And Carl Zurhorst is very believable in the many, highly varied roles he plays.
This show doesn’t care who’s looking at it. It’s a fierce, brave spirit that’s not going to follow the rules that are meant to oppress women. It’s going to tell you its truth, no matter what. It’s going to show the good, the bad, and the ugly; to peel back the layers and expose the raw anger underneath women’s everlastingly polite exteriors. I just wish it would expose more of its heart as well.
Alicen is working on setting up GYNX for online streaming, in order to make this theatrical production accessible to as many people as possible. That should be available in the next few days. I’ll update this post when the stream is ready, or you can keep an eye on GYNXtheplay.com
GYNX was written and produced by Alicen Grey. It was directed by Maridee Slater. Lighting design by Kathrine R Mitchell and sound design by Caroline Eng. Costume and set design by Lily Prentice. Stage combat choreographed by Omri Kadim.
MARIE ……………………………………………. Bianca V. Amato
PETIE ………………………………………………….. Alex Beechko
NATASHA …………………………………………… Maria Loraine
GYNX …………………………………………………. Jillian Stevens
AMY / TAYLOR …………………………………………. Jane West
ALL MEN……………………………………………… Carl Zurhorst
GYNX and Alicen are looking for a new producer as the play moves to the next stage in its life. Contact Alicen through the GYNX website, GYNXtheplay.com if you or someone you know is interested.