Review: In ‘Bliss,’ women from Greek myths fight the patriarchy in midcentury New Jersey
In 1960 Orange, N.J., a neighborhood tea party is about to begin. The hostess, in a petticoat-flared dress and pearls, sets out pristine china. In every detail, she follows the rules of etiquette set forth by Emily Post.
Yet however much she strives for perfection, she fears that something has gone rotten in her tastefully Modernist home: her ambitious husband is quite likely unfaithful.
Her guests, it turns out, are similarly beleaguered, and when we realize their true identities, we perceive that they have faced their problems for a long, long time. The hostess is Medea, and those gathered with her are Clytemnestra, Antigone and Cassandra — four women from Greek mythology who have been reincarnated through time, cycling endlessly though the same diminishment or abuse by men.
The prophetess Cassandra, though, is determined to break the pattern. Can she persuade the others to do the same?
Funny and powerful in equal measure, “Bliss (or Emily Post Is Dead!)” is a terrific spirit-rouser at a time when women everywhere are calling out bad behavior and demanding equality — and, this week, boosting their numbers in the halls of government. Moving Arts energetically brings Jami Brandli’s script to life in a presentation at Atwater Village Theatre.
This is a big year for the North Hollywood-based playwright. Her “Through the Eye of a Needle” was well-received when introduced by the Road Theatre Company in North Hollywood in the spring, and “Bliss” has been rolling out in a three-part world premiere, with stagings in San Diego and Chicago preceding L.A.’s.
At Moving Arts, director Darin Anthony oversees a production that, in every detail, feels just right.
Midcentury Modern furnishings project a sense of affluence. Scenic designer Amanda Knehans cleverly envisions the gilded cages of this era in crisp lines and sleek functionality. The period clothing is similarly glorious yet hard-edged. The tight waists and form-fitting fabrics of Allison Dillard’s costume designs look highly constraining.
As Maddy (Medea), Jacqueline Misaye keeps a magazine-perfect smile plastered on her face but lets quiet desperation occasionally seep through her eyes. Ann Noble’s Clementine (Clytemnestra) maintains a similarly genteel veneer, but it’s cracking — and underneath, she’s zestily acerbic. Composing a letter to the ubiquitous Post, she demands: “Why do you give us … so many rules that only contribute to a man’s freedom?”
Both women have husband problems. Clementine’s has been long absent on an “epic business trip” to Troy, Ohio (echoes of the Trojan War). Maddy’s is closer at hand but no less worrisome.
A recent addition to Maddy’s tea parties is 17-year-old neighbor Antonia (Antigone), whom Maddy is eager to groom in the Post mold. But Antonia — who is the ward of a domineering uncle — is the next generation, and in Becca Gordon’s portrayal, we sense openness to new directions.
Cassandra is new in town, sent back by Clementine’s husband as a secretary. Invited to tea by Antonia, the young outsider — as played by Jasmine St.Clair — goes rigid with foreboding as she first sees them all.
She is able to see the future but is cursed by the god Apollo to go unbelieved. In this life she has been reincarnated as a black woman, which makes her doubly unheeded and powerless. Still, she persists in trying to coax her compatriots out of their patterns.
Apollo continually besieges her, trying to entice her to show some affection (the lack thereof earned his curse in the first place). In Andrew Carter’s portrayal, he is a guffaw-inducing caricature of male narcissism, preening in a shiny gold mini-toga and cape.
The guffaws turn to gasps as he sits back, legs spread suggestively, or pulls the band of his golden boxers away from his waist so he can gaze down and proclaim the magnificence of what he sees there — #MeToo moments as old as time.
“I am the god here,” he proclaims, and “those strong-headed women need to know their place and fulfill their fate according to my needs.”
That attitude has persisted another 5½ decades beyond the women of Orange, but it’s encountering ever more pushback — a movement that this exhilarating play and its superb interpreters invoke with dazzling originality.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays, 2 p.m. Sundays (some exceptions); ends Dec. 2
Tickets: $30; Mondays pay what you will
Info: (323) 472-5646, movingarts.org
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
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