BWW Review: DENIM DOVES at American Theatre Company
The resistance is alive and well at American Theatre Company this spring: their production of the feminist farce Denim Doves was a masterpiece of modern political theatre. While it was absurd and outright silly at times, the play's web of messages and themes resonated all the more powerfully due to the infusion of humor into an otherwise ominous tale.
ATC had the honor of presenting the Oklahoma premiere of Denim Doves, but the play already has a short but illustrious history. It was devised collaboratively at the Salvage Vanguard Theater in 2013 and then workshopped over the course of two summers in Belle, MO, which actually serves as a piece of the play's setting. I had the opportunity to connect with the playwright at the helm of this collective artistic effort, rising star Adrienne Dawes, who said that the theatre piece that ultimately crystallized into Denim Doves arose from "a unique blend of outrage and exhausted humor" connected with emergent threats to women's rights in America.
Denim Doves takes place nearly 100 years in the future in "a modest compound in conservative Prophet Territory (Belle, MO)" - a setting that is never fully clarified, but rather gradually illuminated over the course of the play. The story centers around the 5 female residents of the compound and the secrets about their existence that are revealed when a 6th Wife comes onto the scene. The women share many things: a husband, who they refer to as Penis, a secret language that only women can understand, an appreciation for "Welch's grape", and of course, their denims. It's difficult to do justice to the details of this futuristic landscape that are so gracefully uncovered as the layers of the Wives' performative womanhood are pulled back, but suffice it to say that things are not as they seem, and resistance is in the air.
Denim Doves begins with a bit of metatheatricality as two "Interpreters" (played by the pitch-perfect Sean Rooney and beautifully understated Milena Hope) burst through any preconceptions an audience member might have about a possible 4th wall and introduce us to the conventions of the show that we are about to see. In the ATC production, the audience started out in the lobby area of Studio 308 and then were ushered into the theatrical space in the back, which was outfitted as the compound. The minimalistic but detailed set and general sense of abandonment permeated the space, and this made it all the more sinister when the Wives addressed us audience members as "Sisters" while the doors to the outside world shut with a sinister click.
One of the most salient aspects of the world of Denim Doves was the music. The score was written by Erik Secrest with lyrics by Cyndi Williams, and Karlena Riggs provided the musical direction at the ATC. Ms. Dawes shared that the inclusion of the original score in the Tulsa production provided an exciting learning opportunity for both the creative team and the audience. "I'm really thankful that (director) Carly Conklin agreed to use [Erik's] original score for this production," Ms. Dawes says, because it required him "to provide sheet music and demo tracks" - in the original production, the actors learned the songs by ear in person. Further, she says, "The music is so unique and it feels really integral to the story and world." Indeed, the songs set the tone for the play as a whole. They are simple and haunting, sung with minimal instrumentation from handbells or sparse guitar. The songs function not only as an expression of the Wives' experience and insight into their inner life, but also as a cultural artifact of the futuristic setting.
Some highlights from the play included performances from Kathleen Hope and Kathryn Hartney as First Wife and Second Wife, respectively. Hope's leadership of the group of Wives bolstered the entire play, and the tension that she embodied between survival and rebellion was at the heart of the story. Hartney supplied some of the play's most heartbreaking moments of unrequited affection and profound anxiety. Each of the performances from the Wives were unique and memorable in different ways: Jen Thomas provided the group with a tragically bubbly energy as the Third Wife, Kara Bellavia's Fourth Wife was magnetic and appropriately mysterious, Phena Hackett as the Fifth Wife never pulled focus from her sisters, but was a consistently intense and fascinating on stage presence. Finally, Anna Bennett was also a standout as the Sixth Wife, and she never wavered from or apologized for her fierceness.
The male players provided some of the most wonderfully ludicrous moments of the play. First Son, played by Nick Lutke, embodied an archetypal manchild at the start of the play and preserved the perpetual adolescence of his character even as he evolved towards manhood. Thomas Hunt as The Husband, also known as Penis, was an absolute joy to watch as he bumbled around haplessly. Hunt managed to strike a brilliant balance between portraying Penis as entirely incompetent, but never allowing us to lose sight of the practical threat posed by that incompetence.
To Ms. Dawes, the play is "closer to historical drama than a weirdo future farce", and she is unsettled by how its message has taken on a new kind of gravity in just the few short years after its inception. She muses, "it's really creepy how much this play feels like it could really happen" - and this idea is central to the power of the show. Dawes also spoke to the blending of dramatic, tragic, and comedic influences on her work: she said that she and the company strived to "tell a really solid, dramatic story that just so happens to involve very funny humans . . . or it happens under very silly circumstances." This is why, as absurd as Denim Doves may feel at times, it's ultimately a genuine blending of serious speculation and effervescent imagination.
According to director Carly Conklin, "Denim Doves is all about using what little you have (power, agency, resources) to affect change and fight back, which is exactly what it took to get the play produced." Her direction and the work of the company as a whole is a testament to the passion and energy of the Tulsa theatre community, and the ability of a remarkable group of artists to collaborate and create something spectacular. Particularly in light of the deeply disheartening elimination of the Theatre program at the University of Tulsa, ATC's production of Denim Doves is an example of the local efforts that are giving hope to the Tulsa arts community. The play Denim Doves doubtless has a future in theatre companies across America, but this production was a testament to the ability of Tulsan artists to sharpen their forks, break open their bottles of Welch's grape, and fight back.