“Can your uterus fall out?” That was the first question I asked the internet after seeing Sheila Callaghan’s Women Laughing Alone with Salad (at Shotgun Players through Nov. 18). The short answer the computer spit out was “no,” but it did explain that, “the weakening of your pelvic floor muscles can make it feel and appear as though this may happen.” I thought of this after Sandy (Melanie DuPuy) complains to her son Guy (Caleb Cabrera) that it feels like hers is about to fall out.
I tried to piece that bit of information together with an earlier scene, not equal to, but reminiscent of Divine’s in Pink Flamingos. After purchasing some cosmetics or perfume, Sandy pulls up her skirt, squats in the middle of a department store and lets something reddish brown fall from her undergarments to the floor. From my vantage point, I couldn’t tell if what had fallen on stage was meant to be fecal or fleshy. When she picked it up and shoved it up her backside, I wasn’t any clearer about what her body had expelled or why she’d stooped to retrieve it — apart from thrilling the audience with a total gross-out moment.
Salad further demonstrates the extremes Sandy goes to in order to preserve her youth and beauty. She uses so much Botox that her face re-forms — or is deformed — in the shape of a Rubber-Forehead alien from Star Trek. Her hands turn into bloody stumps after receiving a manicure from what must be a more aggressive, mutant species of Garra rufa, the fish that perform pedicures. To account for this woman’s dangerous ablutions, the playwright repeats two crucial facts about Sandy’s history. She was an activist in the 1970s, fighting for women’s rights. And, Guy tells us pointedly, that she sent his father away. He doesn’t say separated or divorced, but just that: She “sent him away.” We never find out the particulars, but Guy’s relationship with his mother is emotionally freighted — and, in one convincing anecdote, nearly incestuous. Boundaries are a problem for the both of them.
Sandy represents the type of feminist who couldn’t have it all, as if there is any other kind. She had to make personal and ethical compromises to have the life she thought she wanted, one that included raising a son. But the play doesn’t tell her story in full. We don’t find out if those compromises and thwarted dreams are what’s fueling her ongoing effort to stay young. Instead, Callaghan writes a conventional story about the dysfunction this mother and son share, and then wraps and dilutes it in the unconventional trappings of an anti-GOOP parable. The title of the play refers to an internet meme in which women who eat salad take an unseemly amount of pleasure from chewing on various varieties of undressed lettuce. These women inhabit the same universe as The Stepford Wives. They’ve been programmed to be obedient, smiling, and slim.
Women Laughing Alone with Salad is competing with an infinite number of media campaigns and supplementary internet videos that repeatedly send the same message to women: Buy our products and you’ll stay forever young, beautiful, desirable! As those Chanel commercials used to phrase it, “Share the fantasy.” Sandy has not only fallen for it, her identity has been subsumed by the fantasy that she must do whatever it takes to ensure that her face and body do not change with age. She’s an example of how not to behave for a younger generation of women, like Guy’s girlfriend Tori (Sango Tajima, who has mastered the art of evocative miming). Tori eats nothing but salad, and her svelte figure is toned by yoga. His mother approves of her thinness. It doesn’t matter what her values are or what she does for a living. If Sandy’s dedication to her appearance encourages her spiritual death, Tori is oblivious to it.
This production employs everything in its arsenal to engage a younger theatre-going audience. Video screens play the aforementioned memes and suggestively spin peach and eggplant emojis. Thumping music accompanies scenes set in dance clubs and an ecstatically choreographed G-rated (but implied to be XXX) three-way sex scene. Contemporary idioms and cultural references appear on every page of the script. Salad is a high-energy romp that’s attempting to get at and portray something new on stage. When Guy meets Meredith (Regina Morones) at a club, they talk to each other in short bursts of intimacy, revealing way too much information and too soon. Their conversation sounds like it was inspired by a generation of sexually active young adults who’ve learned how to date and relate to each other virtually. Decorum is D.O.A.
The advantage of this unvarnished approach to dating is that Guy and Meredith can hook up with no strings attached. Except that having sex with Guy isn’t emotionally uncomplicated for Meredith. Act I ends with her confusion and frustration laid bare in an epic struggle with Tori on an enormous bed of lettuce. In opposition to Sandy’s repressed or unfulfilled generation, Callaghan applauds and delights in the openness of Guy’s. But she concludes that Guy, Tori, and Meredith aren’t any more self-aware or less confused by intimacy than Sandy. Even if the digital training wheels they grew up riding have empowered them to state and act upon their every thought, feeling and whim. The maddening part of Salad is that Callaghan defines the women, not by summoning up their inner lives, but by what they’re reacting to or against. Whether that’s men, other women or the images they’re constantly bombarded with. In that one regard, the play leaves you feeling hungry for something more substantial to bite into.
Women Laughing Alone with Salad, through Nov. 18, at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, $7-$40; 510-841-6500 or shotgunplayers.org