I love environmental theatre.
Maria Irene Fornes’ enigmatic avant garde piece, “Fefu and Her Friends,” has been a fave since college days. The show takes place in four rooms of a home in which the audience walks through, spending 10 minutes with each story. It has a cast of eight women, and was regarded as “feminist” in 1977 because it… created roles only for women.
In the ‘90s, one way to stand out in the rather overcrowded Shakespeare performance market in Chicago was to do, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream while hiking at a local arboretum! It was kinda fun. Brought the Bard down to earth, so to speak.
The thing I love about environmental theatre is that it lets the audience be a part of the show in a visceral way.
Which is why I was happy to discover that Vegas has its own long-running bi-weekly environmental theatre company. This one stars seven women and one man, with occasional walk-ons. It’s called the Clark County School District Board of Trustees meeting. And boy, it’s not to be missed.
The most recent meeting took place, largely, in two rooms. At least for me.
Let’s set the scene.
I walk in, just before the show, er meeting, starts, I see lots of empty seats, which doesn’t surprise me. Because even though the regular meeting room at the Greer building on Flamingo is about an 1/8th of the size of the Lowden Theatre at the Las Vegas Academy (where meetings have been taking place for a few months), many people think this show just isn’t entertaining enough to attend. I fully disagree.
I head to one of the empty seats in the theatre, er boardroom, and stop in my tracks. It’s not an empty seat. It has tape on it! I head to another open seat. Fie! Tape on that, too. I stand in the aisle and spin around, having one of those horror movie, rapid cut closeup moments when I realize every seat that’s not taken has tape on it!
Then I look up at the actors and they are sitting so close together they might as well be on each others’ laps. The plexiglass between them only heightens the feel of claustrophobia. If one of those pieces of plexiglass falls, I wonder, will it be like dominoes?
But hey, this is environmental theatre, so I go to another room to watch the performance.
The theme of this room is The Banish’d Unmasked. And it, too, has a patina of horror.
The Banish’d Unmasked is full of people who are angry. They are angry that they must be banish’d for not wearing masks. They are angry that their children must wear masks while in educational edifices or be banish’d from such edifices. They are here to talk about their anger. With the cast members. In the main theatre. Which is a little ironic, since they are banish’d from the main theatre except to march in, one by one, with masks on, to rant at the cast members about their anger at being banish’d.
And this is the fun part. Because the cast members cannot engage with the audience. I know there is the concept of breaking the fourth wall, but it’s usually broken by the actors. In this concept the fourth wall is broken by the audience, and the actors must sit stone faced and pretend they’re listening.
Apparently there is some kind of law that requires actors in this kind of theatre to not actually engage with their audience. And they can only communicate with each other by looking straight ahead, addressing each other as Trustee Monteforte, if Monteforte should be their last name.
This rule gives the performance an undercurrent of hostility. Imagine if you’re having a fight with your sister and you are forbidden from saying, “Stop wearing my clothes!” Instead, you must say, “Dearest Lanie, my habillements do not fittest you. And when you wear them, you spilleth ketchup.”
I’ve come to realize that the name of this playing area is The Room of the Passive Aggressive.
Each actor in this cast has a role to play. Roles they may have chosen. But in many cases, roles that are chosen for them.
There is the wise older woman with a twinkle in her eye and the patience of Job. She could be a therapist in another life. Or a teacher. We’ll call her Patience. Patience is currently the director as well as an actor.
There is the younger woman who lives and dies by rules, regulation and order. She is the kind of person who would Tweet at me and say that she does not stare straight ahead while talking to her fellow actors. She stares at an angle of .312268493870468333 to the eighth power degrees. And therefore I am incorrect, stupid, and a bad writer. We’ll call her the General.
There is Cassandra, who is marked by an abundance of hair. This, I believe, makes people see her as the embodiment of evil femininity. She used to be a model. One of her former photo shoots is in Renaissance Boudoir style, which the cabal, the Keepers of the Culture of the Rape, resurface every once in a while whenever Cassandra challenges The Man. Cassandra, of course, is a truth teller. Which is why the concept of evil femininity was invented to begin with. Women who tell the truth are terrifying.
The General hates Cassandra. Viscerally. The General also spends a lot of time behind the scenes whisper-spitting about Patience, who, she thinks, misuses her power because she isn’t specific enough. And because the General used to be the director and she doesn’t like Patience holding the job.
The last role I’ll outline here is the Fool. Every good drama needs a fool. This one just joined the cast. She believes that liquid can turn to gold and that there is a vast conspiracy to turn people into statues. I’m beginning to understand that she doesn’t really believe that. She just believes that saying that will get her power.
She is the cast member who represents the Banish’d Unmasked. And in true opportunistic fashion, as her devotees marched in one by one at the beginning of the show to inveigh against the plot to deprive them of oxygen (this was their ACTUAL argument), she took off her mask.
I had found a seat in the Room of the Passive Aggressive when an audience member pointed out that the Fool had taken off her mask, and that it was against the rules of the Clark County School District – the producers of this show. Indeed, teachers and students had been told they had to wear masks till the end of the year, which is what the Banish’d Unmasked were protesting.
Patience then asked the Fool to put her mask back on.
“I respectfully decline,” said the Fool.
The Fool looked at the Counselor. Oh, I forgot the Counselor! She is a regular cast member, but she doesn’t always have a speaking role. The actor who plays the Counselor will be leaving the cast soon.
It was clear by the glance that the Fool and The Counselor shared that they had already spoken about this.
Patience then called a recess and the cast exited stage right into their conference room – which I was pretty stunned to realize was the parking lot! Well, the cast except the Fool and the Counselor exited, until Patience had to come back and get them.
Remember, this is the Room of the Passive Aggressive. What the audience member and Patience did is violate passive aggressiveness by asking the Fool directly to remove her mask. I love when characters push against the central theme of the play.
When they came back, the Counselor announced that the CDC – which is the national health authority – had ruled just that day that vaccinated people could go unmasked. And therefore the Fool had every right to take her mask off.
This ignores some very important facts. First, how did she know that the Fool was vaccinated? When I was in the Room of the Banish’d Unmasked, people were talking about how wearing masks and getting vaccinations was not god’s will – which is why I kept my mask on. That 2% possible Pfizer fail rate went up dramatically in that room. These are the Fool’s people. Now she was admitting to them that she had been vaccinated?
Or was she just lying to the Counselor?
Also, the school district had not issued instructions based on the CDC announcement that had been made that day. So, technically, everybody on district property – including the very theatre we were sitting in – was operating under the old rules.
And, part of the job of the director is to make those kinds of calls. When the chairman of a committee asks someone to take off their hat, even when the request is racist (as many no-hat rules are), the person must remove their hat, and protest about it later. This may be infuriating, but it is part of the rules of the play.
In any case, the next day the district reaffirmed that the mask rules will remain in place until the end of this school year. I think the Counselor and the Fool owe Patience a public apology at the next meeting.
Curiously, the General did not object to this insubordination by the Fool – a kind of reaction she would never have countenanced when she was the director.
Which, of course, exposes a reality about the General: she doesn’t care about rules, she cares about how she can manipulate them. Which is why she hates Cassandra so much. She can’t fathom that Cassandra is not manipulative.
We as a society cannot fathom that Cassandra is not manipulative, or that she may very well be the smartest person in the room. That’s why the Cassandra myth exists. And that is what rule manipulators count on.
Tomorrow, I will focus on the specific purpose of this performance. But for now all you have to know is this: the specific purpose of the performance was to prop up The Man.
The Man – Supt. Jesus Jara
Patience – Board President Linda Cavazos
The General – Former Board President Lola Brooks
Cassandra – Trustee Danielle Ford
The Fool – Trustee Katie Williams
The Counselor – Board Counsel MaryAnne Miller
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