This winner of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference Prize for Women Playwrights, Lydia Blaisdell's The Silent Woman, tackles one of art history's more curious footnotes: Oskar Kokoschka's months-long affair with a human-sized doll he commissioned to look like his former lover, Alma Mahler.
Kokoschka, now recognized as one of the foremost painters in the German expressionist style, painted the doll obsessively until he eventually got over the loss, moved on, and apparently lived a totally normal life.
Although the role of Oskar is a prominent, important one (charismatically played with nuance by Darius Fatemi) in the play, the primary thematic thrust of the show centers on Hulda (Bethany Finley), a scullery maid whom Oskar hires to be the doll's lady's maid.
Set in 1919 but written in contemporary language, and occasionally peppered with very adult content (and brief nudity), the show embraces the utter bizarreness of the scenario with a mixture of tongue-in-cheek jokes and emotional gut punches.
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Independent producer and director Eric Seale, former director of Actors Guild of Lexington, who referred to himself as "just a guy" in his curtain speech, capitalizes on the anachronistic flavor of the show by contrasting minimal set elements with two-dimensional painted props designed by Barbara Clifton to evoke the distorted feel of German expressionism. The result is a show that is truly strange, jarring at times, alternatively funny and disturbing, and ultimately thought-provoking.
Experiencing the show was confounding, at first. I can usually predict where a show is headed (in general), but I was eluded by the first act's slow setup. Was this a love story? A portrait of an artist story? An upstairs-downstairs drama? A dark comedy? Only when I gave up trying to define the show (and when the tempo began picking up toward intermission) did I begin to see the show for what it primarily is: Hulda's.
Beneath the layers of art history and hyper stylization, the tale is a feminist study of the tragic injustices suffered by ordinary women for centuries, perhaps millennia. The fact that Kokoschka worships a fake, lifeless "ideal" woman instead of appreciating the living, breathing woman who is largely responsible for his recovery, is a potent representation of the dehumanizing attitudes toward women that still linger today.
There is plenty of thematic meat on the bone with regard to Kokoschka's plight as an artist, and satisfying inquiry into what it means to be an artist. But the heart of the play is about Hulda's journey from dutiful, dreamless servant girl to bold, dreamful potential lover to unfairly disgraced and impoverished social reject.
It's sad, anger-inducing and just plain not fair. And yet, for so many women like Hulda throughout history, that has been or is reality.
The show boasts some fine performances. Fatemi colors Kokoschka as a suffering artist with good intentions but no sense of reality and a dangerous blind spot to his own egotism and privilege. Bob Singleton breathes humorous vigor to his multiple roles as coachman, butler and policeman. But like the play itself, it is Finley's performance as Hulda that drives the show.
A few years ago, Finley beautifully portrayed a meekly deceptive child in Naomi Wallace's One Flea Spare. Her talent has matured further since and I could not help but feel I was watching an actress come into her own. She commands the stage with confidence, alternatively dropping F bombs like a boss before melting into an aching vulnerability (and frequently, a fascinating combination of courage and vulnerability at the same time) that manages to convey what it feels like on the inside to be a woman.
I didn't realize all of this when I left the theater, though. The Silent Woman is the kind of show that hits you sideways and you don't really know what's happened to you. I left the theater thinking, "Huh." But it has lingered with me, stirring up anger and sadness, long after curtain, a sure sign it has done its job.