Watching Stages' slick, well-acted, Zoom-inspired production of MJ Kaufman's Sensitive Guys, I consider myself fortunate to have finished my school days eons ago.
That would have been in the dark ages, way before snowflakes, empowerment, toxic masculinity, student environment action groups, safe space, being in the moment, micro aggression, transformative justice, the Woman's History Month Coalition, and the Vegan Working Group of the Improving Dining Collective. All these fractious issues swirl and collide with prickly satiric bite in trans playwright Kaufman's “comedy about rape culture,” as it was subtitled at InterAct Theatre's Philadelphia premiere in 2018. It is very woke. It's probably the wokest thing you will see this season.
Unless, that is, you happened to catch now-defunct Horse Head Theatre Co.'s one-time-only reading at Rec Room Arts in June, 2017. Actors Mai Le (Pete/Amy) and Rachael Logue (who played Jordan/Katie/Jones for Horse Head, and now assumes Danny/Diana for Stages) deliciously know their way around Kaufman.
Kaufman's other plays (Masculine Max, Sagittarius Ponderosa, Wolves Eat Elk, eat and you belong to us) never deign to cover such a mundane theme as coming out trans, Kaufman's beyond that. The plays delve deeper. (Transmasculine Kaufman prefers the personal pronoun “they” or “their” instead of the mundane “she” or “her,” and while I am loathe to butcher English grammar, I will cede to their wish. Kaufman once told an interviewer that they will gently correct anyone until the point has been made, although they said it all depends on how they're feeling that day.)
At Watson College, a very liberal liberal arts school apparently in the northeast, there are two student groups working in tandem to eradicate all sexual assault in the next five years: the Men's Peer Identity Group and the Survivor's Support Group. The men, called “like dogs” by SSG's Amy (Mai Le), are trying their best to transform themselves into male feminists, or as Danny (Rachael Logue) confesses, To not become his father. The diverse guys have rules and regulations, which they try to follow out in the world, such as “we speak one at a time,” “we speak from I” (never generalize into 'all men'); “move forward, then move back” (this allows them to quash mansplaining and shut up to allow others to talk); and that important over-arching reg about confidentiality. What's said in MPIG, stays in MPIG.
The women, equally diverse and all survivors of assault, have problems of their own. They need recruits, and if they don't increase ranks, the school will drop funding. They're in the midst of making a presentation video to prospective students, and that's where we find them when the play opens, bickering over how best to indoctrinate yet not offend. Butch songwriter Diana (Rachael Logue) adamantly refuses to write background music. She rants that she only write angry feminist songs, while wearing a Free Pussy Riot tee. We believe her and move back. Katie (Emily Neves) wants the film to have a sense of humor, to lighten the edge, but her skit is painfully inadequate. SSG's goal is to confront, prevent, and eradicate, to transform sexism, to stick it to the Big Bad Patriarchy. They end their session with clenched fists into the screen.
As you have guessed, all characters, men and women, are played by females. The women are magnificently drawn, the men are magnificently drawn. Part of the fun in Guys is witnessing the amazing transformations. Logue, as butch Diana with spiky updo, becomes privileged white-bread Danny with but a slick of her hair and a Brooks Brother shirt. Neves, first as cheery Katie, morphs into film student Jordan, with a hip wannabe-rapper look, then takes on the role of Jones, the faculty adviser for MPIGS, in scholarly vest with man bun, sprouting a Men's Health fashionable stubble. Raven Justine Troup, is sensitive Tracy in wild braids, then changes into hipster Tyler, with a smoky wisp of mustache and backward baseball hat. Mannerisms change, attitudes change, voices change. It's quite the accomplishment. It's sly and subversive, a soft nudge to gender neutrality, which of course is one of Kaufman's aims.
L.A. Clevenson's contempo clothes reek of college non-fashion; videographer/editor Peter Ton nimbly maneuvers the various screens with sharp cutting or effectively timed fades; lighting designer Christina Giannelli washes the small screen with realistic flourish; while set designer Stefan Azizi speaks volumes with very little: a bookcase, a messy bedroom, a library's conference room.
Drama is quickly introduced when Leslie (Donna Bella Litton) chimes into the group meeting and uneasily relates her campus assault, interrupting the spirited discussion of “free bleeding,” a woman's prerogative to not wear a tampon. She freezes the group when she confesses her perpetrator was a member of MPIG. She won't tell them who it is, for she hasn't convinced herself she wants the rape reported.
Dodging through the thorny predicament, Kaufman wisely plots out the rest of the story in elusive droplets, finagling the characters to wheedle past each other searching for clues and answers. No matter how progressive, the school won't help, insinuating the donor alumni would be appalled at such allegations. The guys, through their strict confidentiality agreement, while upset at the accusation against one of their enlightened own, cannot bring themselves to seriously confront the issue. The impasse is solved when the women use their prospective student video presentation as means of revenge and empowerment. They take decisive direct action. These women confront.
Sensitive Guys was ready for its Stages' premiere when Covid-19 reared its ugly little head and shuttered all theaters. But artistic director Kenn McLaughlin and director Leslie Swackhamer confronted the problem with action of their own. With input from Kaufman, and a bit of tweaking, they cleverly turned Guys into a Zoom presentation. This is nothing short of brilliant. It works so well because all the group scenes could realistically be a video conference. Movement is restricted, but now we're up close and personal. In tense moments, the actors lean into their camera in extreme close-up. At times, they're in their dorm rooms or the dean's office or sitting in front of one of the ubiquitous Zoom exterior backgrounds.
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Filmmaker Jordan, in one scene, surrounds himself with a border of cinematic sprocket holes. While everyone is separated, they meet as one. It's terribly effective and serves Kaufman's play almost as well as if on stage. Perhaps even better. Naturally, we want to see this played out live, not on a tiny screen. But this new medium suits the intimacy of Kaufman's tale. We're passive witnesses, maybe another of Kaufman's subtle choices.
At times the drama stops for anguish. In fragrant reminiscences, the women recall their assaults. Katie no longer can enter the room in her family house where her abuse happened, the whir of a fan brings her pain; Diana reveals that the better she looks, the less safe she feels; Tracy recalls her patronizing passive-aggressive teaching assistant with his condescending attitude; Amy never wears the clothes she was wearing when she was raped, yet there they hang in her closet, taunting her.
Kaufman liberally sprinkles humor over this serious subject – the clueless guys struggling so hard not to be guys; the very wokeness in the numerous PC coalitions on campus; the self-righteous self-congratulation; the end-of-the-world feeling when you break up – and keeps a light tone throughout, preaching just enough to the choir to make their voice heard even unto the congregation. You may even get a smidgen of instruction yourself. How woke is that? They would be happy.
Sensitive Guys. Streaming online through YouTube through August 23. Go to stagestheatre.com and register for free. Also on YouTube: The Making of Sensitive Guys, a documentary on how Stages turned Kaufman into Zoom.