The Playgoer: "Stretch: A Fantasia"

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Stretch: A Fantasia"

It closes tonight, alas, but if you're looking for something interesting to check out at an affordable price, I recommend Susan Bernfield's Stretch: A Fantasia, a highly original piece exploring an important corner of Americana.

As a Watergate-buff myself, I was drawn to see it by the obscure subject: Nixon's longtime secretary Rose Mary Woods--pictured above (in real life), demonstrating how she "accidentally" erased 18 and a half minutes of the Watergate tapes.

While personally I would have liked more explicit reenactment of this hilarious historical moment (and more exploration of the scandal in general) Bernfield is up to something else. First, a critique of the Great Man theory of history (something directly invoked and ridiculed in the play) by way of taking us inside the experience of a not only a woman, but a woman who stumbled into history by playing what she proudly accepted as a subservient role. Woods also provides a window onto a whole culture of what we now consider 1950s femininity. But her life, as presented by Bernfield, both exemplifies and subverts the stereotypes. On the one hand Woods' tragic flaw, so to speak--in that it relegated her to both fame and infamy--was her blind loyalty to a powerful man and a willingness to remain in the shadows (his shadow, specifically) till her dying day. Of course, her career as a secretary--the Boss's Secretary at that, to the Boss of all Bosses--encapsulated this image to a tee. And one of Stretch's chief charms is how it exploits the iconography of the old-school corporate secretary to the max--most prominently in a specially commissioned score by Rachel Peters, performed live and "scored for violin, trumpet, bass & IBM Selectric typewriter."

On the other hand, in Bernfield's script and in Kristen Griffith's delectably-retro performance, Woods is also a highly ambitious professional, a tough-talking broad, who, after all, typed her way up to the most powerful office pool in the land. Unmarried--except to the Prez, of course--she keeps her secrets to the end, which in the play is an Ohio nursing home in the days surrounding the 2004 election. (Indeed Woods died in early 2005 in such a setting.) While the play is framed by naturalistic interactions in the nursing home, the fun part of Stretch are the "fantasia," Woods' flights of fancy, dreaming herself a history far more glamorous and powerful than what really was.

The 2004 setting--an election after all where evidence of fraud in Ohio itself was ignored with a collective shrug--serves to contrast Woods' feisty commitment to the relative apathy of the current age. A subplot involving two stoner kids (one of whom works in Woods' nursing home) represents the next generation somewhat heavy handedly, and I wouldn't have minded less of their intentionally vapid dialogues. (Though a dismissive and confused description of the movie All The President's Men is amusing and very much to the point.) But the use of this counterpoint to show the eventual "radicalizing" or "conversion" of Woods' attendant from apathy to political consciousness and involvement is a compelling, if unsubtle, narrative.

Those who still consider Woods a notorious "co-conspirator" and criminal equal to Tricky Dick will be disappointed in Bernfield's surprising sympathy for her. But the point here is not refighting old political rivalries, but contemplating the changing roles of women in our polity. In a way, Rose Mary Woods took the only route into politics available to her, even if it was a demeaning one in service of a tyrant. And--more to the point of the play--at least she got out of her home town, saw herself as something beyond a babymaker and a housewife and got involved. Griffith's star turn--morphing constantly between moxie and doddery, grandeur and dotage--sells this concept with great fun, creating a Rose Mary Woods that probably is nothing like the real person, but serves a much more fun dramatic purpose.

Addendum: I should also mention this is a production of New Georges (of which Bernfield is Artistic Director) and is handsomely produced and designed, all under the stylish coordination of director Emma Griffin.

1 comment:

RLewis said...

Great write up of this piece. I've seen it a few times over the years, and it's been a joy to watch it grow. Maybe some in the theatrosphere too often seem big on bashing "new play development", and I find this show to be a terrific example of getting the most out of process. And being that the playwright is the AD she probably didn't have to go through all that. Kudos to you both.