Review: "Herstory" Is One of Repetition with a Difference

 Herstory

Co-created by Gisela Cardenas, Laura Butler-Levitt, and Heather Hollingsworth

Written for the stage by Javier Antonio González

Directed by Gisela Cardenas

Presented by In Tandem Lab and New Ohio Theatre at the New Ohio Theatre

154 Christopher Street, Manhattan, NYC

August 4-7, 2021

Laura Butler-Levitt & Heather Hollingsworth. Photo courtesy InTandem Lab
Perhaps one reason that Shakespeare's late play The Tempest has consistently inspired responses and reimaginings is that its concern with who controls the narrative is more text than subtext, from Prospero's rehearsal to his daughter Miranda of her own past to his paternalistic perspective on his expropriation of Caliban's land and labor to his stage managing of more or less everything that occurs during the play. Herstory uses The Tempest, specifically Miranda, to initialize an exploration not only of (gendered) control over narrative and expression, including the narratives that we construct for ourselves about ourselves, but also and relatedly the ways in which women's lives are circumscribed by means ranging from locked doors to internalized patriarchal norms. Conceptually and artistically bracing, Herstory runs from August 4 through 7 as part of New Ohio Theatre's 2021 Ice Factory Festival, taking place from June 30 to August 14 and comprising seven plays as well as the New Neighborhood’s Endless Loop of Gratitude, an ongoing sound installation in the festival (proof of vaccination and masks are required at all shows).

Opening with the sound of rain, the play finds Miranda (Heather Hollingsworth), returned from the island, shut up for "walking out" inappropriately and considered by many to be a witch. The life of a married woman in Naples, it seems, conflicts with what she feels was the freedom of her island upbringing, although she has tried to be compliant. Her leanings towards forces such as Mother Ocean also conflict with the Catholic beliefs of her fellow citizens, as embodied in her sister-in-law (Laura Butler-Levitt), the only person willing to visit her in her captivity, saying that it is her duty. Here, and throughout, the two actors play off one another wonderfully. Hollingsworth inhabits Miranda marvelously, giving an almost sly gloss to her unruliness. Butler-Levitt's foil to Miranda turns out to share more with her than we might expect from her initial near-haughty deportment, though neither does that mean that she develops into a standard-bearer for women's solidarity.
Laura Butler-Levitt & Heather Hollingsworth. Photo courtesy InTandem Lab. 
Just when the audience settles into some early modern intriguing, however, Herstory shakes things up—and not for the last time—reminding us that "herstory" is made up of many women's stories (and giving Hollingsworth the more controlled and Butler-Levitt the more instinctual character this time). These stories are as deserving of expression and attention as any connected to a canonical male writer, and the play makes clear the significance of the echoes among the divergences across time and space in those that it tells. A trap, it tells us, can assume many forms for women, but so too can the idea of inheritance. One could no doubt plot out the precise relationships among the play's vividly realized characters, but the associative logic at work is likely more important, and the touches of the strange and even the metatheatrical among a general realism reinforce that impression. Herstory is a satisfying experience which, we can attest, will leave you talking about it long after you've left the theater.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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