Five Lesbian Brothers
Crowded Fire Theater Company
415 255 7846

I am capable of what every other human is capable of.
This is one of the great lessons of war and life.
Maya Angelou

Expect the unexpected when you see the Crowded Fire Theater Company’s production of The Secretaries. You will see five exquisite women dressed to impress sitting at computers looking like the main office of almost any business firm in the world. However, the audience knows immediately that something in this conventional tintype is very, very wrong. “Amidst the secretarial language of clicks and giggles lies a landscape of beautiful high camp and riotous humor that reveals uncomfortable truths about our culture’s attitudes toward women,” says director Marissa Wolf. “The Five Lesbian Brothers walk a delicate line in their writing, offering both an exaggerated artifice and a current of human tenderness that cuts right to one’s heart…..And what better context than side-splitting humor to address the profound cultural fears and assumptions revealed in this play?”

The dialogue, the delivery, the very personas of the five women in this cast is distorted and hilarious, but the plot is somber realism. These women are stereotypes of desperate human beings trying to conform to a world where the rules for them to succeed and to be fulfilled are made by men. It is said that when you suppress someone in one way, their individuality and self-expression will pop out in another. I don’t think I will ever forget the expression on the new girl Patty’s (Elissa Beth Stebbins) face when she is torn between pleasing her boss Susan (Leticia Duart) and being true to the moral values she has always believed true. Peaches (Eleanor Mason Reinholdt) is fat and cannot lose weight. Watch the fury on her face when she looks at Patty and says “You can eat anything and you’re still thin” and you will understand the cruel injustice of the “beauty image” this society has imposed on women. If you are overweight, you don’t fit the picture and you are discarded….and in this play Peaches is fired for just that reason. Her figure is wrong for the job.

The lines in this play are angry and very predictable: They are said by bitter, frightened women determined to find a way to outwit the rules that suppress them. The plot is a thin, ‘We’ll get back at you’ diatribe against men and against heterosexual women. The audience laughs at the satire and the clever remarks, but underneath the wit is a statement that every human being needs to hear.

THE SECRETARIES’ story is not funny. It is real. And it is terrifying. “Holding women to sexualized standards diverts attention from competence and perpetuates gender roles that are separate but by no means equal” said Deborah Rhodes, author of THE BEAUTY BIAS.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the role that secretaries play today in the world of business. THE SECRETARIES examines what happens to a person’s psyche when looks and femininity are the only criteria for survival. The audience sees what can happen when people force themselves conform to a mold they neither accept nor enjoy. “The play examines the ways in which women act as the enforcers of sexism -- turning sexist repression inward by engaging in self-destructive behavior that passes for "self-improvement", says Lisa Kron (one of the five lesbian brothers) on her website. “And, second, it explores the converse notion that women who band together are, by definition, "man-haters." The Brothers explore the "truth" and "myth" of each view with their characteristic irreverent humor.”

“Through parody and camp, THE SECRETARIES walks a fine line, simultaneously exalting and eviscerating constructions of womanhood and gender, attacking feminists and homosexuals right along with mainstream culture,” says dramaturge Sonia Fernandez. “THE SECRETARIES is as shockingly funny and probing today as when it originally ran, in an earlier version in San Francisco seventeen years ago.”

But the Crowded Fire version of this play is far more than a satirical attack on preconceived notions of what a woman should be. It is a beautifully choreographed work of art that combines superb acting, synchronized movement, song and dance into a mesmerizing 90 minutes of social commentary. The costumes are perfect extensions of the characters. The actresses are exaggerations of women every one of us has met and avoided because they are too stylized, too thin and too magazine-perfect to be us.

It is often said that women who are beautiful create expectations they could never ever fulfill; but on the other hand, women who are not slim, or cover-girl gorgeous never have the chance to fulfill any expectation at all. Everyone in this century thinks we have come very far from those narrow guidelines and yet listen to an Australian feminist from the nineties: "Who cares how men feel or what they do or whether they suffer? They have had over 2000 years to dominate and made a complete hash of it. Now it is our turn. My only comment to men is, if you don't like it, bad luck - and if you get in my way I'll run you down."

The secretaries in this play band together to murder men because that is what gives them pleasure. The feel imprisoned by the male code of success and they want revenge. This is bone-chilling reality in the style of David Mamet, directed and acted with just enough irony to make it digestible by a talented and thrilling cast of women.

I cannot commend Crowed Fire Theater enough for having the courage to stage this revelatory exposure of what we have not achieved. Do not believe for one moment that women are equal to men, today. We might be able to hold the same positions in business and even government, but we still come home to clean men’s houses, have their babies and mother their children even though we do their jobs even better than they dared to imagine. Do not deluge yourself. Women are not free to be themselves yet and THE SECRETARIES makes this abundantly clear. We still need to act like the definition men have made for us and in this play, we see what can ultimately happen when we rebel.

You can poke a lot of holes in the script and in the clichéd reaction of the characters to each other in this play. Sure, the way they lampoon the demands society and their bosses have made have been said many times before. Nonetheless, THE SECRETARIES makes a statement everyone today needs to hear. It demands that we rebel against these glass prisons we have allowed to be erected if we want to achieve a society where people are people and each one of us can be unique. This production convinces us that we have a long, long way to go to get to where we think we are now.

The thing women have yet to learn is
Nobody gives you power. You just take it.
Roseanne Barr
September18-October 9, 2010
Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8p.m.
The Boxcar Playhouse
505 Natoma Street
San Francisco
Tickets: $15-$25 with student/senior rates