Laura Ellis & Jane Embry Watts appear in Sidewinders.
Photo-Looking for Lilith.
By Basil Kreimendahl
Directed by Kathi E. B. Ellis
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Looking for Lilith specializes in producing plays that chart women’s roles in history; very often from moments that occurred long before the word feminism was spoken. Their last effort was set in the Shaker community at Pleasant Hill, and now they turn their attention to that most rugged portion of American history, one associated with male archetypes such as The Outlaw, The Gunslinger, The Cowboy, etc.
In only its second production after premiering in San Francisco in 2013, Basil Kreimendahl’s Sidewinders uses the frontier myth as setting for an investigation of the fluidity of gender identity. The deconstruction of a male-dominated landscape like the Wild West in such terms is a heady premise ripe with potential. The play begins with a certainty of purpose but struggles with its own identity before it is finished.
It opens with Bailey (Laura Ellis), who appears to be a soldier, perhaps from the Union Army just after the Civil War, and Dakota (Jane Embry Watts), a cowpoke packing twin six-shooters, in the middle of a contentious discussion about the former’s private parts. Bailey wants Dakota to inspect them to clear up the confusion about “who I should fuck?”
Playwright Basil Kreimendahl assiduously avoids gender specificity, with the characters substituting nonsensical noises and phrases in this exchange for words such as penis or vagina. The text calls for the two to be cast with women, and it is a testament to how disciplined the writing is that the audience can so easily accept the intentional gender confusion. This first portion is hilarious, and is expertly played Watts and Ellis, the latter of which once again proves her sure fire instincts for comedy.
A third gender-neutral character named Sandy (Alphaeus Green, Jr.) arrives in a tin wagon to upset the delicate balance achieved by the first two. Whereas Watts and Ellis are women playing archetypal roles, Green is a man playing a florid, effeminate character costumed in a dress. It is further proof of the strength of the well-chosen cast that Sandy doesn’t read as transvestite or transsexual. In fact, one of the most important aspects of the writing is how it establishes the right degree of ambiguity in these three characters that our understanding of them is so fluid. But we also never question the commitment in either text or performance.
By the time Sam (Crystian Wiltshire) emerges from Sandy’s wagon, the genre foundations have become nearly meaningless. This last character is a doctor who has tended Sandy’s changing physiology with some cost to his psyche. Sam is the one figure with a seemingly firm grip on his gender identity, but his struggle brings its own level of ambiguity: are we to identify with his conflicts or pity them?
The second half feels like it’s missing something, although I’m not certain what it is. Perhaps the first half is so sharply written that the climax cannot help but seem slightly underdone in comparison. I could have watched Watts and Ellis work their Abbott and Costello comic energy all night, and Green is also a hoot, although he gives Sandy enough foundation to avoid the easy trap of caricature, but when he retires from the action, the play loses some crucial inertia. This is the point where Wiltshire enters, but I think it the script and not the actor that is the source of the trouble.
Production values are necessarily lean, but the costumes are good and there are two set pieces that make important contributions to the concept, and the unorthodox location at OPEN affords the happy inclusion of Sandy Griffin’s striking photographs of mostly nude human figures. That exhibit, entitled Inside/Outside, helps set the tone and reinforce the themes of Sidewinders.
Whatever feels lacking about Sidewinders, I can only applaud the risk of its choice and welcome the cutting edge of its perspective. Kreimendahl wrote the play more than 2 years ago, and it arrives in Louisville at a time when the national (worldwide?) discourse on gender politics is reaching new levels. It is a potent example of how art can lead, or at least forecast the shifting trends in culture rather than follow them.
May 14-16, 18*, 21-23 @ 7:30 pm
May 23 @ 2:00 pm
$18 for adults
$15 for students and seniors.
*Community Night – all tickets $10.
Groups of ten or more are $12 per ticket. Must call for group reservations.
INFO & RESERVATIONS
Looking For Lilith
2801 S. Floyd Street
Louisville, KY 40209
[box_light]Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.[/box_light]