photo by Theo Cote
Romana Soutus’ play Martyrs, at La MaMa, presents nine women in a room with two king-sized beds and a garish sort of expressionist Madonna on the wall. The walls are chicken wire, like a cage.
This is a secluded cult, with three leaders whom the program calls cats, and six followers whom the program calls kittens. They’re all waiting be “lifted”, living in the eternal present. “There’s no before. There’s only now,” one says. They talk a lot, but nothing happens until late in the play. Nothing can happen because the characters, for the most part, are deliberately not individuated. The cats are three manifestations of cat and the kittens are six manifestations of kitten. What happens to one cat physically happens to all three.
This is innovative playwrighting as far as it goes. And it’s clever of Ms. Soutus to keep the play so abstruse that we spend the early part asking “Who are these people? What’s happening?” However, she hasn’t overcome the problem of plotlessness, and the play doesn’t work because it has no shape. For example, one kitten says “What if I don’t want to be lifted?” An interesting question, but nothing comes of it.
The play is at its best when it gives us observations on the abandonment of individuality. When a kitten says “I want you,” it means they all want each other. And three kittens slap themselves simultaneously as a punishment for something or other - it’s not clear what.
And Ms. Soutus shows interesting flashes of insight: “I keep you around because I need a witness. Courage needs witnessing,” one cat says to the kittens. “I accuse myself of sadness,” someone says. And for all their spiritual blather, what we remember is a mysterious symbol: “You can never be empty with that toad in you,” a kitten says to a cat, reversing the teacher/student roles.
Ms. Soutus makes some interesting points otherwise as well. The cats are disappointed when they’re not lifted - “I’m not good enough. I tried so hard,” one says - but the kittens can deal with it. The cult followers have more freedom than the leaders here.
The play is drenched in estrogen, of course, but it tastes like testosterone. Ms. Soutus confounds our expectations of femininity with violence.
Things do happen in the play, but they happen one after another without one leading to another. The director fails to explicate the action or give shape to the play. We’re usually bewildered. What’s more, the costume designer has put both the cats and the kittens in white. She’s making a statement, but she’s not helping us by obfuscating character entirely. Worse, the playwright has a disgusting obsession with toileting.
So let’s take from Martyrs what we can - a suggestion of how to write about homogenous personalities, the strength of delayed exposition… And leave the rest.