The first sound comes from behind the audience. Women, unclothed and barefoot, approach from all corners of the theater, presenting themselves as they are – with no visible trace of embarrassment or shame.
And that’s probably the crucial moment in New York-based author and director Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show. There is no reveal, no striptease, no coyly sneaking out from behind a curtain/screen/lampshade. This isn’t about nakedness as stripping down, it’s about nakedness as a state of body, a physical condition we ignore in some parts of intellectual Western society, but still resonates.
Despite all of the serious societal trappings I’m putting on it, the naked body can also be hilarious. And that’s what carries this nearly completely movement-based piece in the end, not radical theory or cutting social commentary, just simple humour.
And comedy is traditionally a man’s world, so that’s probably the most excitingly feminist part of the show, not the Dove ad-like acceptance of different body types. The show is constructed in such a way that it is not only acceptable, it’s somehow freeing to laugh at naked women, because this nakedness isn’t exploitative, it is actually empowering. The laughter is instigated by the charming ensemble of women themselves, and there’s something electric about the power to make people laugh.
The comedy isn’t too complicated – think mimed twisted fairy tales, graphic sex act propositions (brilliantly executed by cabaret performer Lady Rizo), and traditionally female activities like cooking turned into a pop dance routine – but it works. Some scene-lets offer the opportunity to read more into them – an proudly out of tune American Idol number makes for a pleasant reminder that auto-tuning is almost as present as airbrushing in mass culture. Overall it’s refreshing to see a piece that doesn’t try to take on more than it can chew, and focuses on doing one thing well.
But that’s probably the natural Berlin performance world criticism of this American performance. Where’s the theory? The complicated structure of references and refined coordination of text, music and movement? And while the lack of language can feel a bit constructed for pandering to the European touring circuit, it’s also a charming reminder that there was a time when humans existed without language and we could still communicate. Stripping away clothes and language also serves to symbolize stripping away society or a return to an earlier utopia.
And that’s the thought that nags at the corner of this piece.
The utopia created in the theatre is temporary and the outside world isn’t nearly as friendly. The audience at HAU2 was supportive, but it is a specific cross section of the Berlin world – there was a distinct lack of headscarves in the audience. There’s no overt attempt to address this gap, and the few moments that touch at more serious emotions – loneliness and anger – are brief or turn into comedy.
In the end, the piece doesn’t propose to solve society’s problems. There’s quite a bit of feminist theory that’s already working on that, and may someday turn this third wave of feminism into a tidal change. But that also doesn’t undermine the piece’s value as a genuine alternative to the usual presentation of the idealized naked form. And each alternative to the consumption of the female form as nothing more than a sex object is a step in the right direction, especially if it embraces the power of laughter.