Femininity as a commodity is manufactured, sold and destroyed in Lily Houghton’s fabric-drenched new play, “Of the woman came the beginning of sin and through her we all die.”
Set inside the basement of the bohemian clothing store Free People, the production brings together four young women, who use magic and a makeshift coven to spin through trauma, friendship and healing within the lacey confines of their workplace-turned-personal-Eden. Abundantly stocked with crystals, Starbucks and flowers, the play turns morbid when the thin veil between safe space and caustic conformity begins to fall away to reveal cracks in the supposed bonds between the women.
The play, which runs at Normal Ave theater through Oct. 20, functions as a sort of psychology experiment that asks what happens when individuals who would otherwise not interact are stuffed into a windowless room together, without access to the outside world, for hours at a time. The Free People setting, drawn from Houghton’s personal experience working at the store, pushes this study further to reveal the elements of performative femininity at play within the space.
“This artificial prettiness in stores like that is something that is very interesting to me; I think particularly because the time that I was working at Free People was not the best time of my life,” Houghton said. “My father had just passed away, and I felt a lot of anger and messiness, and then was going to this hyper-femme place that was sort of like this weird juxtaposition to me.”
Throughout the play’s duration, the women take turns tending to this hyper-femme space — much like how one would care for a garden, constantly weeding to keep up appearances and health. As three veteran employees slowly accept a newcomer into their coven, the co-workers repeatedly prune the clothing table during store hours, only to fill the boho-chic floor with a deluge of paper and fabric, the remnants of spells performed by the women.
At first, the women form an idealized version of community. They profess love for each other and make space to talk about feelings while also constantly reinforcing boundaries (the discussion of men, for example, is prohibited, as is talking down to one’s self). Spiritual rituals are performed with surgical precision and care is taken to rid the basement of any sign that anything magical has taken place. But as the women get closer (and conform to each other), a growing sense of disquietude begins to bubble, and it becomes evident that the messier traumas that are pushed away for the sake of the coven at large — and the aesthetics of the space — threaten to pull the group asunder.
“I think what this play is,” director Kylie M. Brown said, “is this tension between what happens to people with real trauma who are trying to heal and make space for that, but don’t have the toolbox to create, what we have learned in this rehearsal process is, a liberated space.”
By adhering to the codes of the so-deemed safe space, the women must shed elements of themselves for reasons that, at times, seem arbitrary or tied to a version of femininity generated by capitalism. To some, the play may sag under the torrent of femme-coded references, but the language — and the way that it is spoken by the characters — remains steadfast in evoking a certain type of femininity that often is dismissed as frivolous.
“What I’m trying to prove in the text is putting all these sort of messy situations against a very pretty backdrop,” Houghton said, “and, again, sort of exploring this idea of this outward femininity and then all the stuff that’s actually going on underneath that, in my personal experience, has been diminished because of my femininity.”
These hidden elements and frustrations are revealed in moments of solitude and during changing room “confessionals,” where the women reveal to the audience their darkest secrets and fears, all of which remain hidden to the other women on stage.
In the end, the inability to create a space where everyone’s traumas are allowed to exist simultaneously threatens to destroy the store and the tenuous bonds between the women. And, yet, though this loss would be devastating, Brown suggested that it is sometimes necessary in order to finally let go.
“You have to destroy for rebirth,” Brown said. “You have to burn the part of you that contains all these multitudes in order to move forward.”
Top Image: Kirsten Harvey, Ianne Fields Stewart, Carolyn Kettig and Sabina Friedman-Seitz in Lily Houghton's "Of the woman." Photo: Sub/Urban Photography.