At the end of The Cable Car Nymphomaniac, a world premiere and the inaugural production of FOGG Theatre, and Late: A Cowboy Song, which was written in 2003 and is now playing at Custom Made Theatre Company, you might feel some theatrical deja vu. As Cable Car's Bryce (Courtney Merrell) boards one of the quintessential San Francisco vehicles whisking her into a new life, or as Late's Mary (Maria Leigh) and Red (Lauren Preston) gallop into the sunset, it's hard not to think of one of the most famous departures in theater history: when Nora, in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, shuts the door behind her, leaving behind home, husband, and children.
Ibsen wrote that play in 1879, and it is considered one of the first dramas that brought Western theater out of the age of melodrama and into modernism. In it, Nora begins the play a happy housewife though her husband Torvald treats her as a child, calling her, variously, “my little squirrel” and “featherhead.” She opens her eyes and leaves only when he impugns her virtue then discovers he's wrong and attempts to recant, all within moments.
These newer plays chart essentially the same course: A wife is coddled like a baby, deprived of her freedoms — and then she breaks free. Obviously, these two plays aren't representative of every contemporary drama about women; obviously, women in every part of the world still suffer the same plight as Nora, Bryce, and Mary.
But this is still not the only story that we can tell about women anymore, even women who are oppressed by men and societal norms. Since Isben's time, we've had feminist firecracker Wendy Wasserstein and playwrights like Caryl Churchill, Sarah Kane, and Young Jean Lee, who had her female performers in Untitled Feminist Show shed all trace of the male world, down to narrative, language, and clothing.
Yet our theaters still put this Ibsenesque narrative, in new guises, on their stages over and over again. It's seen in plays by Lauren Gunderson, Monica Byrne, and Julia Cho. It's safer, more comfortable.
But for the bold, it presents an opportunity. American theater is shining the Bat Signal for playwrights to once again be seers, for theater companies to look beyond escape narratives and seek, champion, and produce stories about women that don't simply show them in situations we can all agree they should get the hell out of.
This is not to say that these productions are wholly without merit because they don't shift the paradigm. Late was written by Sarah Ruhl, one of the best-known and most-produced women playwrights in the country, and it showcases her knack for subtle foreboding. The dialogue between her couples always reeks of unease, not because the couples spar outright, but in the way each gleefully forays into his or her own tangents, unable to sail along with the other.
It's not a well-balanced play, though. Crick (Brian Martin), Mary's husband, is too wholly unlikeable a character, a man-child unable to function in the adult world. He looks like a baby in a playground spat even when he abuses his wife. Maria Leigh, whose resumé of late has included few speaking roles in fewer realistic plays, brings such acuity and thoughtfulness to her also-childlike role that she partly makes up for an underdeveloped script. One of its driving forces — Mary's growing attraction to Red, a female cowboy — is implausible; how could a character who's never allowed to be anything more than a child feel grown-up love?
The charms of The Cable Car Nymphomaniac, written by Kirsten Guenther and Tony Asaro and directed by Terry Berliner, are those of a good old-fashioned musical. Don't get too excited by the title, which refers to a true 1964 S.F. story in which a woman hit her head on a cable car, then claimed to have become a nymphomaniac as a result and successfully sued the city for thousands. Gloria (Rinabeth Apostol) isn't so much the narrative focus of the show as a lightning rod for anxieties about women's frank sexuality — specifically the sexuality of Bryce, the subdued wife of Bruce (David Naughton), who is representing Gloria in court.
Cable Car is at its best when its trio of backup singers steal the show. In particular, the rubber-waisted Alex Rodriguez, a two-time TBA Award winner and the crown prince of S.F. indie musical theater, does heroic work as, variously, a tango instructor, a Hindu goddess, and a Tupperware demonstrator. (In the song “Plasticware,” the lyric “Put a lid on it” becomes a hilarious metaphor for attitudes about sexuality.)
At the Copenhagen premiere of A Doll's House, audiences were so shocked that they demanded Ibsen write an alternate ending in which Nora stays. You won't see anyone protesting the female characters of San Francisco theater anytime soon, and that's to our detriment. You hear me, playwrights? The Bat Signal is flashing for you. Go raise some feminist hell.