Photograph by Eric Chazankin
Strictly Collegial: Gwen Kingston co-stars in 'Oleana.'
Actors ponder: Are you your vagina?
By David Templeton
Last weekend, three iconic plays about women and sexuality opened multiweek runs in three separate Sonoma County theaters, all on the very same night. The shows are Eve Ensler's groundbreaking Vagina Monologues, Willy Russell's acclaimed one-woman play Shirley Valentine and David Mamet's controversial battle-of-the-sexes drama Oleanna.
In early March, in the midst of rehearsals, the Bohemian invited all three casts to sit down for a roundtable conversation. Present were actors Maria Grazia Affinito, Carmalita Shreve, Shannon Veon Kase and Alicia Sedwick of The Vagina Monologues, along with that show's director Hector Correa, plus actors Gwen Kingston and Tim Kniffin of Oleanna, and Shirley Valentine herself, Mary Gannon Graham. Pizza was served.
To start the conversation off, each cast was asked to describe their show in terms of the message it makes or its underlying questions about the attitudes of women and men regarding sex and sexuality.
"Well, The Vagina Monologues is about women," said Shannon Veon Case. "It's about women and their struggle with their sexuality, their struggles with themselves, with relationships, with whatever's been happening in their lives, and—"
"It's a celebration of vaginas," Hector Correa interjected. "That's what I tell people it is. It's about accepting your vagina, embracing your vagina. If there is a message in the play, it's that you are your vagina."
"Does that go for men as well as women?" Tim Kniffin asked.
"Of course it does," Maria Grazia Affinito said.
"The world would be much better if men got in touch with their inner vaginas," Kase said.
"To me," Affinito continued, "the vagina represents the deep, secret place that no words can explain or express. With this play, that remote, mystical, secret place now has words and expressions, and we," she said, gesturing to her fellow TVM performers, "get to deliver those words. It's a privilege, really, to do this show."
"I feel that way about Shirley Valentine," said Mary Gannon Graham. "For me, this is the story of a woman on a spiritual journey. She's found herself trapped by the things that have been expected of her all of her life—to grow up, to meet the boy, to get married, to have children, to live in a little house and go to work and blah blah blah blah until she dies. She's lost herself. There's a part of the play where she talks about her unused life, and how we all carry around the weight of this unused life, so when she's given a gift by a friend, an opportunity to go to Greece, she leaves her home and husband, and ultimately she finds herself again. She finds it through sexual healing. She finds it, as she describes it, through discovering her clitoris, or her cli-tor-is, as she pronounces it."
"Hey, our plays are related!" Alicia Sedwick laughed.
"They really are," Graham agreed. "They both talk about vaginas clearly and proudly."
Not so with Oleanna.
Directed by Linda Reid with no overt discussion of genitalia, this intense drama entails a power struggle between a college professor and the young women who accuses him of sexual harassment. It is, as Gwen Kingston pointed out, a play with no message, only questions.
"If we knew what our play was saying, we wouldn't have a play," Kingston said. "It's a play about sexual power, power over someone else's life, power to help or to hurt."
"It's interesting," Tim Kniffin said, "because when I tell people I'm in Oleanna, there have been people who say, 'Oh, you're playing the asshole!' and I think, 'Really? Is that the case?' I don't know. It's not that simple. It's not Mamet saying, 'Here, this is what I want you to think.' He's giving the actors five or ten choices to play, and so every member of the audience is going to have a different reaction."
"The way in which he does or does not abuse his power over her," Kingston added, "is not entirely a sexual thing. That's the label she chooses to put on it, but it's also about the way she believes he's using his power over her in a more complicated, intellectual, psychological way, to manipulate her and make her uncomfortable. If it were overtly sexual, it would be a lot less complex and ambiguous."
"You talk about sexual abuse," Sedwick said, "abuse is strongly implied in [The Vagina Monologues]. Hector, as the director, has been very careful not to have us victimize what our characters have gone through, just to tell their stories honestly. But there are some uncomfortable pieces. The graphic stuff is squirmy, and as an actor playing it, it makes me squirmy, the descriptions of violence against women, it's—"
"Squirmy," Kase repeated.
"One thing that my director, John Shillington, has been clear with," Graham said, "is that Shirley Valentine—though you could say she's the victim of abuse, or at least neglect—is not to be played as a victim. She's a survivor. She's not a weak woman, but she's woken up to see that she's in a situation she has to do something about, so—"
"So she takes action," Correa suggested. "I know that play. It's a wonderful play. She takes action, and when you take action, you stop being a victim."
Asked if everyone anticipated a larger number of women attending these shows than men, and how they feel about that possibility, Sedwick laughed.
"I think the question is, will the men who show up make it all the way through the play?" she said.
Affinito added, "I had a man come to me and say, about Vagina Monologues, 'I don't really know if I can come to that show. I don't know if I can handle it.' And I said, 'Well, then that just means you're ready for the experience.'"
It is suggested that some men might worry that, as a gender, they will be perceived as the villains in all of these shows.
"A lot of people think I'm the villain in my play," Kingston exclaimed. "When Oleanna was first produced, the opening-night audience booed the girl at the end. Maybe men aren't always the villains."
"That goes back to what I was saying," Kniffin said. "Who the villain is isn't that obvious or clear. Maybe it's not even important. I suspect that's true in all of these shows."
"Right. Nothing's all black or all white," Graham agreed.
The Vagina Monologues' Carmalita Shreve, who had been silent through much of this conversation, finally spoke up.
"About the Vagina Monologues," she said. "When this play opened up in San Francisco several years ago, quite honestly, I didn't want to see it. I thought, 'I know all the terrible things that happen to vaginas in this world. I don't need to see that.' I thought it was going to be all boom-boom-boom to the vagina. And then I read the script, and it wasn't so boom-boom-boom, actually. This play invites people to think deeply and to delve into their own feelings. I'd like men to come to this Vagina, I invite them to come, and maybe they will go away with a different mind-set or some sort of understanding. I think men can walk away from this play, maybe all three plays, realizing that the vagina is an amazing and mysterious and precious thing."
"That was beautiful, Carmalita," Affinito praised.
"It was beautiful," Correa said. "Of course, you do know you said you hope men will come to this vagina. It sounded kind of dirty."
"That's not what I meant, Hector!" Shreve said.
"But, hey, if men do, what a great reaction right?" Kase laughed. "I mean, talk about a standing ovation!"
'Oleanna' runs Friday–Sunday through April 12. Friday–Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2pm. Studio Theatre, Sixth Street Playhouse, 52 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. $12–$18. 707.523.4185.
PASCO presents 'The Vagina Monologues' Thursday–Sunday through April 13. Thursday at 7:30pm; Friday–Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2:30pm. Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. $17–$20; Thursday, $15. 707.588.3400.
'Shirley Valentine' plays Thursday–Saturday through April 27; also April 20 and 27. Thursday–Saturday at 8pm; Sunday matinees at 2pm. Sonoma County Repertory Theater, 104 N. Main St., Sebastopol. $18–$23; Thursday, pay what you can. 707.823.0177.
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