In the midst of very new theater works, this year’s Fringe Festival also features some familiar literary women, though transported far away from their original stagings. Their appearance highlights how much women’s roles in society have changed — and in other ways, how little.
When playwright Amanda Coffin decided to base a new work on mental health issues and their stubborn stigmas, women’s concerns rose to the surface.
“The idea that there is still ‘histrionic personality disorder’ that someone can still be labelled with today, which is a throwback to when women were diagnosed with hysteria,” she noted.
To demonstrate that much has not changed, Coffin and her co-writer Gabriel Henninger turned to some female characters who’ve been around for a long time.
“Bedlam: Shakespeare in Rehab,” ponders the question, how would the Bard’s women be diagnosed today?
“We wanted to look at modern mental health and the stigmas attached to it, particularly for women,” Coffin explained. “The characters in each of these plays have been given certain labels. The most frequent characters that come to mind when you look at madness are Ophelia and Lady MacBeth. We wanted to explore what that meant and whether that’s a valid diagnosis, for them to be quote unquote mad.”
“I think it says more about our attitudes towards women than it does about mental health,” agrees Barbara Lonnquist, who teaches English at Chestnut Hill College. “The melancholy woman, the hysterical woman. Men never suffered from hysteria until World War I, and then it was called ‘shell shock.’ Hysteria was a woman’s condition.”
Similarly, the subject of suicide prevention inspired another play, with another of Shakespeare’s women. “Drowning Ophelia” is being staged by Ensemble Atria and EagerRisk Theater.
“The main character deals with loss and grief and her mental health issues through talking with her imaginary best friend who happens to be Ophelia, as written by Shakespeare in Hamlet,” said Victoria Rae Sook, who plays Jane, a 21st century woman grappling with emotional troubles.
She also sees a lack of change in attitudes since the character was written. “As women today, we’re still fighting a lot of the same battles they were fighting,” said Sook.
While in “Bedlam” and “Drowning Ophelia,” the heroines’ characters stay intact as they’re transported into a modern setting, in another Fringe show, “Exile 2588,” the personality of Io from Greek myth, is updated.
“We’ve taken some liberties with the original myth,” said Nick Gilette, co-founder of the presenting company, Almanac Dance Circus Theater. “The original Io as a figure is so passive. She is seduced, she is exiled, she is punished, tortured by gadflies. And is driven across the world.
“We’ve altered that to allow her to begin with just a little more agency, the ability to get herself into the trouble that she’ll eventually be able to overcome.”
Some women are so distinctive, even just the name can be a launching pad. Celeste Walker said she might have been calling upon the French writer Colette while writing and performing “Colette, Reloaded.”
Though her “Colette” character is not the French author, Walker said she was still an inspiration in this story of a woman’s battle within herself. “Everyone has this struggle, a kind of alter ego between wanting to be accepted, to be loved, to be a ‘good girl,’ with the need to express yourself and be your own person.”
Walker’s Colette is an alter ego to the main character and shares traits with the writer. “Colette was a trailblazer. She did things other women didn’t do, and challenged the norm,” Walker said.
Updated or not, Lonnquist said, these female characters still resonate so strongly over the centuries because they represent enduring — and adaptable — archetypes.
“Her story becomes a kind of screen that people can project onto. Each culture, each age projects what they want to see,” she said.
Yet, some of the very traits that make these women memorable ultimately lead to their downfall, she said. “Strong women, they’re remembered as troublesome. I guess liberated women often couldn’t be happy in the end.”