The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women
Presented by Belmont University Theatre Department
Sept. 30-Oct. 10 at
Belmont Little Theatre
Feminist playwright Carolyn Gage has a strong lesbian identity, and she's a forceful and outspoken political voice for the cause. But at least one of her most recent plays, The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Womenopening Thursday at Belmont University Little Theatre for a two-weekend runmanages to elude the strictly lesbian tag.
Gage has written five books on lesbian theater and 45 plays, musicals and one-woman shows, specializing in creating non-traditional roles for women. Her works have been widely performed and she's been cited for various grants and awards, with one published collection, The Second Coming of Joan of Arc and Other Plays, named as a national finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in drama. Gage is also the founder and director of three theater companies, including Cauldron & Labrys, an all-women theater in Portland, Maine, where she is currently artistic director.
"A mainstream critic is not going to sit there and say it's a lesbian play," Gage says of The Anastasia Trials in a 2003 interview in Women's Monthly. "To me, it is a lesbian play, but I would never mark it as that if I was trying to cross into the mainstream with it. People would go, 'what's lesbian about it?' "
The Anastasia Trials is a historically rooted, audience-interactive courtroom drama about five women accused of betraying Anastasia Romanov, the last surviving daughter of the czar of Russia. The thrust of Gage's work, which she labels a farce, is to indict not only the defendants, but also the "isms of patriarchy"classism, sexism, capitalismand abusers and dominators of girls and women.
"What are the limits of 'sisterhood' as women move away from our status as fellow victims, toward more personal economic independence and autonomy?," Gage asks in the play's introduction. "I wanted to explore the radical changes in the interpersonal ethics practiced by women at the turn of the new century, and I especially wanted to explore the issue of betrayal."
Directing the Belmont production is Laura Skaug, who has been on the teaching staff at the university since 1995, and has worked locally as an actor and director at Boiler Room Theatre. She recently appeared in Inherit the Wind at Tennessee Repertory Theatre. "This is a play that deals with women's issues, but they're not lesbian issues," Skaug says. "You have strong charactersa collective group of modern-day women who are passionate about what they do."
The Anastasia Trials operates as a play-within-a-play, with the audience observing a women's theater group staging the courtroom drama. In an interesting twist, the "actors"in the service of equalityhave all memorized the complete script, then draw lots prior to the show, thus determining who plays which role. "The characters include a radical feminist, an actress who is very aware that the critics will be in the audience, the leader of the theater company, and the playwright," Skaug says. "Personalities clash and events reach a breaking point. I like the fact that the script gives our students, in performing dual roles, some depth to work with." The nine-woman cast includes Elaina McKnight, Olivia Hart, Jennifer Lewis, Elle Donbeck, Nicole Potratz, Katie LaFary, Crystal Jones, Andrea Ridge and Jessika Malone.
"It is a comedy," Skaug says, "but it deals with some serious things: with abuse, with ill-fated marriage and with other feminist issues, without it being a man-bashing piece."
Yet if the men don't get bashed, neither do they get to participate in the audience interaction. "The women in the audience serve as judge and jury," Skaug points out. "During the course of the trial, whenever there's an objection by an attorney, the bailiff polls the female audience members, who get to decide if objections are sustained or overruled."
"The Anastasia Trials answers its own question in its challenge to traditional assumptions about a male-identified audience," Gage contends in the introduction. "In inviting the women of the audience to serve as judge and jury, The Anastasia Trials affirms a culture of, for, about, and serving the interests of women. It also acknowledges the presence of the audience, making explicit their contribution toward the creation of this culture and respecting their right to their own conclusions."
With five shows in its 2004-05 mainstage season, this is a big year for Belmont theater. Fund-raising efforts for a new performance space are under way, and potential donors will likely be viewing the department's work. "Belmont is starting to be perceived as much as a liberal arts school as one with strictly a Baptist identity," says Skaug. "This is definitely a growing program. Besides performing, our students are doing all the design and technical elements. As opposed to when I do outside professional work, the focus here is not necessarily on the product as much as the process. In educational theater, that's personally a lot more rewarding."
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