The story of Zeus, in the guise of a swan, seducing the young and beautiful Aetolian princess, Leda, is a relatively familiar story for any classicist buff. The myth sets the stage for some of the most earth-shattering and epic events in the Greek mythos. The union of Leda and Swan Zeus birthed two important female characters: Helen (of Troy) and Clytemnestra (wife of Agamemnon; both key movers in the famous epic tale immortalized in Homer's Illiad.
This myth in a similar way, served as the genesis to the play Caitlin and the Swan which is in its final week at UNDER St. Marks in New York City. The play attempts to wrestle with and reconcile the rape of Leda, and contextualize for our contemporary notions of feminism, sexuality, and gender.
Nestled in a subterranean performance space, I felt excited as I dipped into this cavern of mystery that was Caitlin and the Swan, written by Dorothy Fortenberry and directed by Joshua Conkel. I was prepared for a theatrical mindfuck, which is the only thing one can reasonably expect from a play about a woman having sex with a swan. But, instead, I found a surprisingly intimate and touching play.
Our protagonist Caitlin is a woman I am very familiar with, she is a woman in her 20s, white and privileged. She went to a liberal arts college and took women's studies courses and got all "with it" and "empowered." Filled with feminist ideals about not taking no for an answer, work-life balance, and having it all in spite of the hurdles of living in a patriarchal world, she embarked into the real world ready to change it. However, once in that very real and very patriarchal world, she finds that she cannot single-handedly alter the course of the status quo. Armed with no real marketable skills, she finds herself drifting anchored only by her increasingly gender conformist heterosexual relationship. The tension between the expectations of female empowerment and the actuality of womanhood in patriarchy spill over into poetic metaphor with the recurring motif of bestiality.
The play opens with three women, Caitlin (Marguerite French) and her two college girlfriends, Priya (Shetal Shah) and Rachel (Teresa Stephenson), chatting over drinks in Rachel's yuppie styled abode of domestic bliss. The threesome gossip about former classmates, their jobs, and critique structural sexism in a work-life balance survey disseminated by their alma mater. This opening scene closely resembling a women's studies professor's wet dream of successful empowered womanliness, comes off as a shade pedagogical; as if watching an edu-tainment film in my Intro to Women's Studies course. However the veneer of comfortable feminism is quickly disrupted by the revelation that Rachel, the successful interior designer with the perfect husband and the perfect house, has been having an affair with a pig named Peter. No, not "That man's a PIG!" kind of pig. Swine flu kind of pig. Pink snout, curly tail and all.
Caitlin is plagued by erotic dreams of Rachel and her swine lover. Rachel's wanton descent into the illicit and taboo with her entrance into bestiality deeply shakes Caitlin and her increasingly vanilla and not particularly female-empowered relationship with Doug. Caitlin feels trapped by her domesticity, despite Doug encouraging to seek more challenging work than her SAT tutoring. It is clear that Caitlin is driven by a need to explore the sexually unknown and improper by entertaining herself with the flirtatious affections of her tutee, Bastian (Jake Aron)... and the beautiful Swan (Elliott T. Reiland) which resides in the lake behind Bastian's home. Caitlin struggles between satisfying her hidden sexual urges and her life in status-quo-land.
I understand the metaphorical significance of Fortenberry's use of bestiality in the play, but it comes off as gimmicky and affected. Especially since everyone and her sister seems to be fucking pigs, cats, swans, etc. While the metaphor is powerful, it is overused. With bestiality seemingly commonplace, it undercuts the taboo of the practice; making Caitlin's turmoil all the more puzzling. I applaud Fortenberry's effort in tackling a challenging topic; but frankly, I've seen this play before... and Edward Albee did it better.
On top of that I severely question the ethics of Caitlin's eventual resolution of her bestial itch. I won't ruin the end of the play for you, but suffice it to say that it reminded me a little too much of feminist revenge porn. I don't see how the defilement and subjugation of man is any more livable or ethically palpable than Leda's rape by Swan Zeus.
The set designer, Timothy McCown Reynolds should be commended for making the small space feel much larger than it actually was. However, someone please tell director Joshua Conkel to get rid of that abysmal excuse for a tree that lives in the downstage right corner of the space. It's pulled out ever so often to signify the outdoors. But it's shoddy craftsmanship and the fact that we can still see the 'tree' during interior scenes, no matter how much you shove it into the corner undercuts its effectiveness. As a professor of mine once told me, "if you can't do it well, let the audience fill in the blanks. The human imagination is far more effective that your propsmaster can ever be." Additionally, not to be nit-picky, but no one in real life cheats out to the front. I understand the need for theatrical blocking, but it is, indeed, okay for actors to face each other occasionally... or even *gasp!* turn around.
The acting was largely acceptable. Ms. French does a quite adequate job handling the role of Caitlin. Her emotional arc really carries the show in spite of what shortfalls it might have. While she does not shine, she does glimmer occasionally. The most successful performance I felt came from Ms. Stephenson as the swine-loving Rachel. Finally, Mr. Reiland, who played both the Swan and Peter the Pig is well cast. While he does not speak his physicality and presence are well suited to his role in evoking feelings of illicit attraction. I was relieved to see the role of the animal lovers played by an actor. I had nightmares of watching women humping plush stuffed animals. By anthropomorphizing the animals our sensibilities are able to more readily identify with Caitlin's plight of being attracted to the Swan, when the Swan is in human form. A clever turning of the tables, indeed.
In all, I felt Caitlin and the Swan was a worthwhile romp. While it needs some tweaking and could benefit from a larger space and better directing, the play was nonetheless thought-provoking and stimulating.