Written and Directed by Anna Breckon and Nat Randall
Part of BAM's Next Wave Festival
Off Broadway, Experimental Performance
Played 10.18.19 - 10.19.19
BAM Fisher, 321 Ashland Place
by Asya Gorovits on 10.20.19
Alia Shawkat in The Second Woman. Photo by Nay Marie.
BOTTOM LINE: A 24-hour live performance on the border of theatre and film, The Second Woman explores masculinity through a superb durational performance by Alia Shawkat.
A woman sits in a pink room, her big blond hair done perfectly, her dress matching the carpet almost as if she herself is an element of the interior. Enter Marty. They eat Chinese takeout, drink J&B whiskey, talk, dance—and then she orders him to leave. Then this five- to six-minute scene repeats 99 more times. The same woman (Alia Shawkat), with 100 participants (mostly male but at least one woman) go through [mostly] the same dialogue over a period of nearly 24 hours. None of the participants (all from the local community) rehearsed with Shawkat; they were only given the script, along with the freedom to interpret the scene however they see fit. This process results in an array of performances of masculinity over a very, very, very long night and day in the theater.
This “theatrical marathon” is The Second Woman, written and directed by Anna Breckon and Nat Randall. By way of Australia and Taiwan, the piece made it to BAM's 2019 Next Wave Festival. Audience members were encouraged to spend as much or as little time with The Second Woman as they desired, and to leave and come back as many times as they want. I sat through the first five and a half hours (with a quick break for Chinese takeout). Although I didn’t plan on returning and had to go to work, I found the gravity of the piece irresistible. I found myself going through the lines of the scene while falling asleep and even singing its catchy song in the shower. As the scene continued to repeat onstage without my presence, it continued to play in my head as well. The next day I impulsively ran back to BAM Fisher to find Shawkat looking as fresh as she did 19 hours prior, when she started.
What a daring, yet simultaneously perfect, choice of a theatrical debut for a film and TV actress. Shawkat brings perfect comedic timing to the piece and demonstrates astonishing endurance, sharp presence, and an ability to own the situation without going into extremes. From the beginning, she paces herself, both to save energy and to provide space for each new scene partner. But by no means is her performance dull or mechanical. Always alert, playful, and often teasing her scene partner, she makes every encounter meaningful. Her calm and collected energy urged me to tune in and just listen and watch very carefully all the people going through her door.
And what a range of personalities and archetypes! When you see the same scene over and over again, you start picking up on the smallest and the most mundane nuances of human behavior: how does one serve drinks to their lover, how does one react when food flies in their face. After spending hours peering into the cubic aquarium of a set designed by FUTURE METHOD STUDIO, one could write a dissertation on the various ways one can perform masculinity. Some actors are gentle and timid and some try to intimidate; some have fun and others are visibly nervous and tense.
At times The Second Woman feels like a behavioral experiment, at other times an audition. Halfway through my visit I moved from the first row to the back of the house and discovered a whole other layer to The Second Woman, namely a large real-time projection screen to the right of the stage. Along with the retro interior design and Shawkat’s hairstyle (by Sophie Roberts), this live video is one way in which the performance pays homage to its inspiration source, the 1977 Cassavetes film Opening Night.
The live video is supported by a team of female and non-binary creatives: two camera operators on stage and two vision switchers behind the scenes. The gauzy fabric covering the walls of the cube serve as a hazing filter that provides a filmic look to the dramatic closeups of the scene. The added presence of the camera’s gaze increases the voyeuristic effect, reminding us how much our behavioral stereotypes and patterns are borrowed from film and TV.
The placement of the screen is somewhat strange—it isn't visible from house left, whereas the inside of the main set isn't visible from house right (so few people watch from there). Conceptual boldness or set design failure, this suggests how the same event might look different from various angles. And just as actors control the mise-en-scene and the live cinema crew controls the screen image, audience members are free to change seats as often as they wish, something that traditional theatre-goers are not accustomed to.
Similarly, as the scene unfolds over and over, it constantly shifts its meaning, depending on multiple variables: who comes through the door and how he is going to behave; how Shawkat feels and how she responds. I too went through several modes of perception. To me The Second Woman was in turn many things: a soapy melodrama about a mistress coping with her position of “number two” day in and day out; a playground for a single actress where she constantly invents new ways of kindly messing with the male participants; a meta-theatrical and meta-film commentary on the ways we think about gender dynamics.
And then it all became “real” during the last scene I witnessed. One participant decided to veer from the safe common ground of scripted dialogue into meaningless improvisation, even getting a bit handsy during the dance. This was the fastest Shawkat pressed the stop button on the stereo and said her last line: “Marty, I think you should leave,” thrusting forward a hand with a $50 bill in it, as she had done dozens of times before. He grabbed it, balled it up, and threw it in her face, saying something like “So weak!” The audience gasped with shock and disapproval. Shawkat went on a 15-minute break (which she took every two hours or so). I exited BAM, processing what caused a man to perform such hatred to any woman, fictional or not. Where does theatre end and real life begin? With The Second Woman, it appears that line is blurry.
(The Second Woman played at BAM Fisher, 321 Ashland Place, October 18 - 19, 2019. The running time was 24 hours. For more information visit bam.org.)
The Second Woman is written and directed by Anna Breckon and Nat Randall. Produced by Performing Lines. Set Design by FUTURE METHOD STUDIO. Lighting Design by Amber Silk and Kayla Burrett. Sound Design by Nina Buchanan. Hair and Makeup Design by Sophie Roberts.
Performed by Alia Shawkat and 100 (mostly) male participants.