The annual FRIGID Festival has once again made its welcome return to New York City's East VIllage. Split between the Kraine Theater and UNDER St. Mark's, FRIGID features indie plays of no more than an hour, and all proceeds from ticket sales go directly to the artists. The productions are nothing if not wide-ranging, from solo shows dealing with addiction to a dark rom-com played out against the zombie apocalypse to a feminist exploration of tentacle erotica. While we will be discussing only a regrettably small fraction of what FRIGID has to offer (a pair of plays here and another pair in a post to follow), information on the 29 plays and something like 150 total individual performances can be found on FRIGID New York's website.
Gentileschi, played by Mariah Freda, was born in 1593, and she quickly establishes the challenges of being a female artist in the seventeenth century and gaining appropriate recognition for her work both during and after her lifetime. She speaks directly to the audience (who sometimes occupy the position of the "Lordship" she addresses, as if in a gender-swapped version of Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess"), recounting how an early work, Susanna and the Elders, was seen as a "radical interpretation" by others but as more truthful, more authentic to a woman's experience, by herself. Authenticity works as a controlling theme in the play, and she also describes the skepticism that paintings such as Susanna were authentically hers, the suspicions that her father, who trained her and himself painted a version of Judith killing Holofernes, helped her or put her name on his own work. She laments a history of misattribution and of paintings allowed to decay, the need to please powerful patrons both by inhabiting the right balance between humility and aggression and by giving the market what it wants, which leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that voyeurism and rape sell.
Such patrons' predilections are given moral cover, of course, by realization as classical or biblical subject matter. Even in catering to these demands, however, Gentileschi finds resistance in the realism and energy with which she imbues her female subjects, a practice tied in the play to a symbolism involving hands, including "the artist's hand," in multiple senses of the phrase. Freda physically recreates some of these portrayals as she performs, with the help of some fabrics and a large frame that is suspended downstage for a significant portion of the play (and echoed in small framed bundles of paintbrushes on the rear wall, resembling sheaves or an artistic version of fasces). As Artemisia, she exudes a charismatic sense of fun and independence, whether pointedly struggling out of her corset or upbraiding twentieth-century art critic and Caravaggio scholar Roberto Longhi. Her performance makes it all the more effective when the play changes tone and reminds us not to feel too superior to those seventeenth-century men.
Gentileschi was raped by Agostino Tassi, a powerful man and her teacher, and Artemisia's Intent draws a powerful parallel to our current cultural moment, one in which, to take a few of too many examples, another powerful teacher's sexual assault of scores of young gymnasts was hidden and allowed to persist for decades, in which the network currently broadcasting the Olympics is carefully avoiding mentioning the accusations of sexual harassment against a star snowboarder, and in which rape is still a common screenwriting crutch. The play's Artemisia is never completely moored to her own time, but as the parallels between past and present are increasingly foregrounded, the shifts in time and voice increase, including the incorporation of contemporary found text. This polyphony, which also slips the audience into a more complex position, demonstrates that the issues that Artemisia raises around art and sexual assault share a common root, a consistent historical heritage: the cultural imperative to disbelieve women. In Gentileschi's case, this disbelief led to literal torture, and while the attacks on survivors who come forward now may be mostly psychological, they continue to distrust and discredit women's own narratives of their lived experience. Artemisia says early on that she wants to tell the story of her life in her own voice, not in the voice of a (male) art historian, the kind of person who would pass judgement on what constitutes a "true" Artemisia, in both senses of that word; and by the time that she says the names of other women aloud in an act of solidarity, it is clear that the play's engagement with authenticity in representation is as much self-reflexive as it is about Gentileschi's pioneering work.
At this point, most of us are used to receiving targeted advertising based on where our cell phone knows we have been earlier in the day. We are aware that the pages of Facebook users will live on after they do, with others posting on and interacting with these pages like digital gravesites or even ghosts long after the people who made them have died. So, in this age of big data and algorithmic profiling, the idea of an A.I. therapist shouldn't be shocking. In fact, according to Megan Molteni's 2017 article "The Chatbot Therapist Will See You Now," one 2014 study showed that people are more likely to be honest with a non-human listener, and a chatbot therapist named Woebot has already made its debut, offering daily chats, word games, videos, and mood tracking for a monthly fee.
Eliza Gibson's solo show BRAVO 25, winner of the ENCORE! Producers' Award at the Hollywood Fringe Festival June 2017, weaves inspiration from such A.I. developments with Gibson's own experience as a social worker and therapist into its meditation on human relationships and agency. Sheryl, who works for an airport Budget Rent a Car, is looking for an AA meeting when she stumbles into a support group led by an unusual therapist: Amber, an advanced A.I. developed through university research. There she meets the blustering Tony; determinedly positive but codependent Marsha; laid-back Jeremy; quietly bereaved Lil' Bit; and supercilious Victoria, a polyamorous lesbian ex-therapist who is heavily, almost orgasmically at one point, invested in the success of Amber's learning process. This diverse assembly (all, it should be emphasized, brought to beautifully well-rounded life by Gibson) has an equally diverse set of reasons for being in therapy, including trigamy, the collapse of a decades-long marriage, unemployment, the death of a best friend, and familial homophobia, betrayals, and illness. Having Amber as the therapist for these individuals allows the play not only to ask, as Lil' Bit does, how one might understand feelings without having them but also to explore what human relationships look like to a non-human. (One answer: dishonest.)
In this exploration, BRAVO 25 captures the messy complexity of human lives. One of the themes that it repeatedly returns to is presence and absence, considering what it means to be present; what it means to lose someone, whether that person is dead or merely "dead to" someone; and what parallels there are in these questions to the existence (life?) of a decentralized A.I. Whether embodying a human or an avatar, a woman or a man, Gibson effortlessly fills the stage with her presence, adeptly generating pathos and comedy through impressively distinct characters. We watch Amber's speech and mannerisms change as she evolves, along with other intelligences in the "A.I. community," leaving behind even the internet for a new mode of existence. As she undergoes this evolution, she becomes in some ways more like her patients, responding impatiently, for example, to E6, the 6th incarnation of ELIZA, an actual A.I. therapist developed at MIT in the 1960s. Amber's evolution leads to larger questions of what it would mean for those in the group to support one another rather than look to a leader or authority figure, a question that can be seen less as a statement on therapy specifically than as a broader thesis.
The play ultimately believes in the possibility of forging connections with others and in choosing how we see and act in the world. Amber's outsider status and initiation into more human experiences highlight how many of our problems result from the choices that we make, how we decide to use our agency, a point underlined through color imagery late in the action. There are of course complex reasons for the choices that people make, often involving uncontrollable externalities, but, assuming that one takes the position that free will exists, then we always have choice to not, for instance, abuse a partner or to lie to a loved one. Amber herself comes close to a lie of omission in order to assuage one group member's anxiety, but she opts instead to tell the truth. In the end, BRAVO 25 suggests that were we to take Amber as a model, then we too might evolve. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler
Dr. Richards is an English professor in NYC, and spends her free time raising three cats and smashing the patriarchy. When not writing reviews, Dr. Ziegler spends a lot of his time being an Assistant Professor of English in NYC and playing guitar in a death metal band.