Review: A Stream of "Female Genius"

The Female Genius

Written by Rachel Carey

Directed by Cameron Bossert

Presented by the wild project and Thirdwing

Available at

Krysten Wagner and Cameron Bossert. Photo courtesy Karen Greco PR.
Although a coincidence, it seems fitting that the debut offering from digital theater company Thirdwing should be structured around artists' struggles. Thirdwing is designed to develop plays both for streaming and for the live stage, and it launched just prior to the COVID-19 lockdowns, with its first live play, The Female Genius, written by Rachel Carey and scheduled to run at the wild project in mid-April. This, of course, did not happen. Happily, thanks to Thirdwing's operational model, audiences can still experience Carey’s Genius through the company's streaming platform. The play, designed to work well for both home and stage viewing, was filmed in styles that recall 50s and 60s teleplays and is presented in partnership with the wild project, to which half of the proceeds from yearly streaming subscriptions will go. (Subscriptions are $36 per year or $3.99 per month, and subscribers who use the discount code WILD will receive 10% off monthly subscriptions.) Subscribers get streaming access not only to The Female Genius but also to content including behind-the-scenes footage and interviews and, at the yearly or 4-month levels, a ticket to the live performance during its post-pandemic remount at the wild project. 

In its streaming incarnation, The Female Genius is divided into six episodes that each run to just around or under ten minutes. The six installments, each built around two or three characters, center on female writers from across almost two centuries. In the first, "It's Alive, " Mary Shelley (Krysten Wagner) propositions Lord Byron (director Cameron Darwin Bossert, also responsible for the music) during that famous summer of 1816. The second, "The Bitch of Amherst," gives us an Emily Dickinson (Bambi Everson) who is not only vociferously uninterested in receiving the visitor, Thomas Higginson (Timothy Thomas), announced by her sister, Lavinia (Amy Lynn Stewart), but is also just about as far from the 19th-century ideal of the angel in the house as it is possible to get. The third, "A Rose is a Rose," moves us into the 1920s and the height of the modernist movement, with Alice B. Toklas (Meghan E. Jones) questioning the gendered roles in her relationship with Gertrude Stein (Amy Lynn Stewart) and why it is that men are the writers. The next two episodes both take place in the early 1950s. "The Disciple" sees Ayn Rand (Maja Wampuszyc) pushing Nathaniel (Cameron Darwin Bossert), whom she has just met and who proclaims that she and Joseph McCarthy are the only ones "getting things right," to act on the philosophy that he claims to admire—specifically the part about how real men simply take what they want, and that includes women. "Separate But Equal," the most tonally serious of these short plays, involves a "believer" of a different kind, as a representative of the pro-school-segregation Southerners for America Committee (Timothy Thomas) attempts to ensure that Zora Neale Hurston (Delissa Reynolds) will indeed deliver the type of speech against integration for which they paid her in advance. Finally, in "Joanne," we jump ahead to the mid-1990s (which itself feels a bit like the distant past right now) and a harried Joanne, later J.K., Rowling (Meghan E. Jones) whose babysitter Kirsty (Krysten Wagner), along with emphasizing that she isn't willing to donate her services anymore, asks why Rowling doesn't just write a mass-market bestseller.
Delissa Reynolds and Timothy Thomas. Photo courtesy Karen Greco PR.
A phone call from a publisher (Timothy Thomas) simultaneously forms a coda to "Joanne" and highlights the contemporary persistence of some of the same attitudes that would have posed obstacles to women writers in Shelley's time. Considerations of gender roles in romantic relationships similarly recur and are questioned across time, from Shelley's assertion that she can practice free love as well as Byron or her husband, to Stein and Toklas's queer but binary relationship, to Rand's desire to be dominated. The questions of gender also intersect with questions of the difficulties inherent in defining and persisting in one's art, whether it be Shelley's self-doubt or Dickinson's conviction that no one understands that she is trying to do something, as she says, dark and real (even if the cost is social isolation). What does literature, much less literary genius, look like under modernist deconstruction, if the thing that is the writer's achievement is identical with its own dismantling? When the choice is between “serious” (read: gritty and bleak), capital-L literature and being able to buy food for one's baby, how important is artistic integrity? Where should the sacrifice come?
Maja Wampuszyc and Cameron Darwin Bossert. Photo courtesy Karen Greco PR.
While The Female Genius deals with the misogyny faced by these women writers, it does not present a series of brief hagiographies: it makes these characters quite human, sometimes even hilariously so. It is described as a dark comedy, and it displays an arch sense of humor, in a more quiet, grounded manner in the Shelley play, for instance, and going much bigger with Dickinson and Rand, which affords Everson and Wampuszyc the chance to give two of the funniest performances. Different audience members will experience these female geniuses in different ways: for some, the play/s may be an introduction to some of these figures, while others will know that Higginson published edited versions of Dickinson's poems after her death or that a penniless Hurston would be buried in an unmarked grave six years after "Separate But Equal" takes place, coloring their individual experience of the performance. No matter what kind of foreknowledge audiences bring, however, The Female Genius offers stimulating snapshots of the messy mix of the human and the genius in six iconoclastic women.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards



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