Three plays that creatively and joyfully upend traditional gender norms are now on deck in Portland-area theaters:
“The Secret Princess,” at Snowlion Repertory Company (April 29-May 8) is a gender-bending medieval musical with a choose-your-own-ending finale.
“Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties,” at Mad Horse (May 5-29), is a “radically queer” comedy in which five characters, all named Betty, converge to grapple with anger, sex, and love.
And “Sabina,” at Portland Stage Company (onstage May 4-May 22; streaming May 18-June 5), is a psychological mystery musical about a young woman who becomes Carl Jung’s patient, then his lover, then a pioneering feminist psychoanalyst in her own right.
All three of these plays explore their characters’ liberation from narrow ideas about identity. And two of them, “The Secret Princess” and “Sabina,” are world premieres that have been in the works since before COVID-19.
‘The Secret Princess’
“The Secret Princess,” book and lyrics by MK Wolfe, music by Thomas Adams, and directed by Al D’Andrea, is adapted from Mark Twain’s “A Medieval Romance:” Conrad, a young duke in the 1221 duchy of Klugenstein, has from birth been secretly disguised as a boy. As Conrad comes of age, romantic foibles and lots of other confusions ensue.
Twain’s stories often employ humor as a sharpened instrument of social critique, and likewise “The Secret Princess” considers unjust norms and the courage it takes to flout them.
Snowlion’s show offers all that plus a traditional musical comedy ethos, as well as an audience vote on Conrad’s fate. Check out the show’s teaser trailer on YouTube.
Things get a little edgier and more absurdist in Jen Silverman’s “Collective Rage,” the full title of which is its own paragraph: “Collective Rage: A Play In 5 Betties; In Essence, A Queer And Occasionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were In Middle School And You Read About Shackleton And How He Explored The Antarctic?; Imagine The Antarctic As A Pussy And It’s Sort Of Like That.”
One Betty, indeed, habitually uses a hand mirror to explore her more difficult-to-see parts. Another Betty wants to talk about love but is instead compelled to punch things. One Betty just wants to work on her truck. And all the Betties stage a play-within-a-play, to work some things out.
At Mad Horse under the direction of Hannah Cordes, “Collective Rage” will be the second show by Silverman produced in the area this season; Silverman’s smart, wild, and genre-bending “The Moors” recently shook the walls at Dramatic Rep. I expect similarly strange and raucous magic from Mad Horse’s production of “Collective Rage,” as sex, boxing, and meta-theater come together to take on bad and stupid tropes about gender.
Finally, “Sabina,” at Portland Stage, honors the real-life story of Sabina Spielrein, a Russian woman who at 19 is catatonic when she’s delivered to Carl Jung for treatment. She begins as an experiment for Jung, who’s been looking to test Sigmund Freud’s yet-untested “talking cure.”
After Jung and Spielrein become lovers, then colleagues, it’s she who brings the two legends of psychology together. But Spielrein herself proves even more radical and innovative, as a feminist woman analyst in a patriarchal field and era.
“Sabina” is a Guggenheim-awarded project of Maine playwright Willy Holtzman, composer Louise Beach, and lyricist Darrah Cloud, with a world-class creative team. Co-directed by Danilo Gambini and Daniella Topol, with musical direction by Bradley Vieth, Spielrein’s story is orchestrated for a live ensemble of string quartet, oboe, and pianist. Artistic Director Anita Stewart calls the show’s take on Spielrein’s story “a thinking person’s musical that speaks to the human soul.”
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
April 27 brings a special screening at the Nickelodeon of “The Last of the Right Whales.” The recovery of this critically endangered North Atlantic species is a fraught conversation here in Maine and beyond, with the creatures being killed by boats and fishing lines faster than they can breed. Nadine Pequeneza’s feature documentary follows a group of scientists, activists, and fishermen who are united in their goal of bringing these amazing beings back from the brink. FMI: https://bit.ly/3K46h7K.
And on May 1 get your May Day on at Space in Portland, with a free screening of “The Wobblies.” Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer’s feature documentary celebrates the Industrial Workers of the World, who brought us such rights as the eight-hour workday. The film interweaves archival footage and interviews, interviews with IWW activists, and songs by Joe Hill. A co-presentation of Space, the Southern Maine Labor Council, and the Southern Maine Workers Center. Screens at 7 p.m. FMI: https://bit.ly/3MqAj7v.
— Megan Grumbling