I was told it would be best to go into Women Laughing Alone with Salad without reading too much into it. I am all for surprises, especially going into an institution such as Theater Wit where I am so often pleased with what I see - but it may have been detrimental in this case. I was expecting an unpredictable feminist comedy, and I'm still not exactly sure how to describe what I saw.
WLAWS consists mostly of thin sketches, presenting stereotypical female caricatures as seen through the straight male gaze of the inventively-named "Guy," played by Japhet Balaban. As the play progresses, the mini scenes begin to come together, leading to a very different (and much better) second act. It's clear what playwright Sheila Callaghan was going for here, but the muddled results seem less-satire and more half-baked. A scene filled with rape jokes evoked the most laughter from the audience out of any in the play - aside from, perhaps, the jokes referring to how 'fat' one of the women is. If this is meant to be satire, that message was not received by Sunday's audience at Theater Wit.
Even more problematic, the production uses anthems by Katy Perry, famous for her many instances of cultural appropriation, and even Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" during transitions. These confounding choices simply seemed inappropriate and only distracted from the already chaotic experience.
To be clear - this is not a good cast. It's a fantastic one. Echaka Agba and Jennifer Engstrom are two of the brightest talents in Chicago, and Daniella Pereira and Balaban give it their all. There is not a bad performance in the lot, and the actors throw themselves full-force into their performances. However, actors can only do so much, and it's distressing to see talented female artists squished into problematic stereotypes. They are never once given the opportunity to speak in a way that isn't filtered through Guy, but the play never provides ample reasoning for this choice.
Arnel Sancianco's scenic design is perfectly green, and Joseph A. Burke’s projections are phenomenal. Director Devon de Mayo uses them throughout the play remarkably.
Callaghan states that the play is meant to 'hold a mirror up to society,' and there is certainly something interesting about writing an entire script from an exaggerated straight white male perspective. But because the intentions of the play are never clear, neither is the play's messaging. The production has the depth of the meme it is based on. It's horrifying to consider that many patrons could see this as an honest coming-of-age comedy following a sympathetic young man. The women in the cast - and the world - deserve better.
Review by Jason Berger
Women Laughing Alone with Salad continues at Theater Wit through April 29. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreinChicago's Review Round-Up.
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