If you want blood …
The Secretaries plunges into the heart of sexual stereotypes
In The Secretaries, now playing at the Blue Room Theatre, a cult of lumber-mill executive assistants in the town of Big Bone, Ore., are driven to a murderous rage every month by a combination of enforced celibacy, sexual harassment, synced menstrual cycles and a diet consisting solely of Slim Fast shakes.
At first read, the play sounds in line with camp- and pulp-heavy productions the theater does often, and well—The Hard Dick, a non-musical adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors, and Twilight Zone Live! all serving as examples from recent years. It plays out much like these productions onstage as well, with buckets of blood, a good deal of over-the-top violence and plenty of dark humor.
But the difference with The Secretaries lies in the play’s strong subtext. There’s obvious comic and prurient appeal in a scene where scantily clad, nubile young women engage in a game of Twister, but underlying themes make you leave the theater questioning why you enjoyed it so much, and if doing so doesn’t make you part of a much bigger problem. While it’s fun to watch, it challenges playgoers in a rare way, regardless of one’s sex or preconceived notions about male-female relations.
The Secretaries is the best-known work by an all-women, New York theater collective called The Five Lesbian Brothers. According to the program notes, the FLB are well-regarded in the queer and mainstream theatrical comedy scenes, operate in the tradition of The Theatre of the Ridiculous, and are fond of subverting sexual stereotypes.
A variety of techniques are employed to the latter end in The Secretaries, most notably with the five-member, all-female cast playing dual roles as the title office women and their lumberjack counterparts. This is done to greatest effect by Sepi Burgiani, who steps out of her primary role as lesbian secretary Dawn into the boots of Buzz Benikee. Benikee is the love interest of new secretary Patty (a wholesome, girl-next-door archetype played beautifully by Kristine Gilreath). When delivered by a woman dressed as a lumberjack, even Benikee’s sweetest, most well-intentioned attempts to woo Patty drip with lascivious intent.
Francesca Gámez and Madison Kisst round out the secretarial pool in their respective roles as the air-headed Peaches and glamorous Ashley, who fears her place as office sweetheart is being usurped by the new girl. Overseeing them all is Susan (Jodi Rives Meier), lead secretary and sociopathic Queen Bee who—in another example of gender-role subversion—coerces and abuses the women into submission. Directed by Denver Latimer, the production is a collaborative effort between the Blue Room and Chico State University’s theater department, with the actresses and some crew hailing from the college.
All of the women are great in their roles, which grow juicier as the play progresses. With the exception of creepy asides delivered in chorus, they start out playing it largely straight, their biggest abnormality being a Stepfordish ultra-normality (keeping in mind that the play, by design, calls into question our concepts of what “normal” is). This facade is kept up through most of the first act, then shatters and falls in shards in the second, until the once-demure ladies devolve into blood- and tomato-sauce-splattered succubi. The actresses tackle this transformation fantastically, relishing in the decadent absurdity of it all.
The Secretaries is an interesting production, a thought-provoking critique delivered in such preposterous packaging that it avoids being preachy. Deeper messages are transmitted in a fashion so fast and furious that I’ve found myself mulling over them days later. It doesn’t pretend to provide answers, but almost subconsciously forces us to ask ourselves some serious questions.