Tuesday Night Café’s new production of The Secretaries, written by New York collective The Five Lesbian Brothers and directed by first-time director Alice Martin Ellwood, does not just straddle the line between parodic and stereotype-perpetuating representations of women. The morbid yet hilarious, Rocky Horror-esque play violates, fucks, and brutalizes it. If that last sentence threw you, well, read on.
Like a candy-coated pill, The Secretaries, with its campy and colourful eighties decor and costuming, intense sexual energy, and occasional splash of blood, lipstick, or a mixture of both, entertains and thrills the audience from start to finish. Only after the curtain falls do its underlying inferences about defining gender, patriarchal oppression, and capitalism begin to take effect.
While some narratives about gender roles in the context of a social or economic hierarchy represent women as piggy-backing their way to the top through self-exploitation or blind subservience to male authorities, The Secretaries chooses to cut the men out of the picture – literally. The show’s dirty little secret – one of many, mind you – concerns the monthly ritual practiced by the show’s central characters, the Slimfast-guzzling, social-climbing Cooney Lumbermill secretary pool. Once a month the secretaries get drunk, order fast food – a departure from their normally all-liquid diet – and brutally torture and murder one of the Cooney lumberjacks.
The audience is initiated into the cult-like sisterhood of secretaries through the perspective of Patty Johnson (Alex Borkowski), the naive, over-achieving newcomer to the pool. Alongside Patty, the audience is introduced to the group: Dawn, the raging lesbian (Christina Cabral), Ashley, the obsessive sycophantic (Claire Horn), Peaches, the dumb blonde (Jenny Hwang), and Mrs. Curtis, the emotionless dictator (Sam Steinbeck-Pratt).
Make no mistake: The Secretaries is rife with this type of satiric stereotyping; what is less clear is whether the play challenges or perpetuates these conventional portrayals. The women, for instance, partake in various stereotypically feminine activities: slumber parties, crafts, shopping, and the odd homosexual encounter with one another. However, the dark side of female bonding manifests itself in a series of sick oaths and rituals that become increasingly perverse as the play goes on. Patty is forced to sign a celibacy pact, turn in her used tampons to Mrs. Curtis each month, and as the final test, saw her lumberjack boyfriend to bits at the groups’ monthly “Kill Night.” In this sense, the play feeds into the negative erotic fantasies that men imagine as the things women do behind closed doors. However, female fantasies of other women are also played out on the stage: straight women fearful of the predatory lesbian, and the lesbian who believes every woman to be a bit bi-curious. The parody begins to spin out of control at points and it behooves the viewer to keep vigilance over the mind and question these stereotypes rather than blindly accepting them.
There are moments however, when this satirical technique is permeated by sharp criticisms of Western patriarchal society. Mrs. Curtis, interestingly played by a male (a completely coincidental choice, as Ellwood cast the actors gender-neutrally) explains the reason for her maniac, male blood-lust in a rare moment of emotional exposure. “I was fucked over and fucked over and fucked over so many times that I can’t separate it out anymore,” she seethes.
The specter of lumber mill owner Mr. Kembunkscher, a character only present as a voice through the company’s P.A. system, represents this oppressive patriarchal figure. He’s alluded to by Peaches as a “fucking fat pig,” a description venting her frustrations with the double-standard rule that a Cooney secretary must never exceed a size twelve. However, Mrs. Curtis’ enforcement of similarly unhealthy, oppressive rules, which the girls blindly follow, suggests an adjunct critique of all tooth and claw, capitalistic, economic structures.
The play does not intend to villainize men, but rather offers a combination of perspectives on women and their roles for the viewer to consider. As the show comes to its frightening conclusion, the characters, clad in blood-soaked lingerie, warn the audience not to search the play for one moralistic message. Ellwood echoed this sentiment. “Rather than leaving with a concrete message about how gender functions or with an (impossible) understanding of what makes up ‘good’ or ‘bad’ gender, I hope that audience members will come away with questions about on-stage gender representations and the subversive potentials of theatrical parody,” she wrote in an email.
The Secretaries has, shockingly, only been performed a handful of times. TNC’s production is the second adaptation presented at a university. Don’t miss out on this rare gem of a play, and the chance to see some extremely talented actors get away with bloody murder.
The Secretaries is playing from Feb 3-6 and 10-13 at the TNC Theatre, Morrice Hall, in the Islamic Studies building. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org