The name of the company behind She-She-She is Hook & Eye, which is also their guiding metaphor and a good one. They start with “a hook, a story that grabs their interest” and “through an extended creative process … tug at the thread until they’ve found a story to unravel.” Here, they have an undeniably rich hook in one of the first “She She She” women’s work camps organized by Eleanor Roosevelt, in what is now New York’s Bear Mountain State Park, and so nicknamed as the female counterpart to The Civilian Conservation Corps—or CCC—a public work relief for unemployed, unmarried men that was a major part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal efforts. One of the more fascinating aspects of this history that “hooked” the company’s interest is the friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Pauli Murray, developed through written correspondence after the First Lady and the civil and women’s rights activist met during the former’s visit to the camp where Murray worked at the time. Murray was soon forced to leave by the camp’s director who disapproved of her Marxist literature and lesbian relationship with a white counselor.
Mrs Roosevelt and Murray only feature in small vignettes, however. The principal characters are fictional: Rivka (Carrie Heitman), Maureen (Elizabeth London), and Cornelia (Asia Mark)—the 1930s camp workers thrown together by the hardship of the Great Depression; and Ani (Cynthia Babak), Jolene (Emily Kunkel), and Tria (Nylda Ria Mark)—the 21st century women drawn to the State Park in search of answers, healing, and freedom. The ensemble is rounded out by Chad Lindsey, Jeremy Rafal, and Javan Nelson who, along with the women in the principal roles, take on a range of park rangers, camp directors, romantic partners, and historical figures.
The camp set up is ideal for bringing together a diverse set of women in difficult circumstances, and the premise benefits from its added value as a little known part of American history. This particular thread, however, could have been tugged a little harder. Although Hook & Eye seem determined to at least touch on every aspect of social justice for which the context of a camp sets a promising stage (the women come from different backgrounds and races, but share a certain desperation—ranging from the obvious economic strains of the Depression to more personal crises, such as widowhood), no single issue ever quite seems to reach the depths or pitch of crisis that would convey a real sense of stakes, whether personal and/or political. To extend the company’s own metaphor, She-She-She suffers from some fraying, or perhaps over-spinning of narrative. While each element displays skill and creativity in itself, the surreal forays into the characters’ pasts and subconscious landscapes, for instance, draw energy and focus away from the central and engaging thread of a semi-metaphysical encounter between present day hikers and the women of the She-She-She camps. Similarly, ensemble enactments of historic documents, such as one of Murray’s letters to Mrs Roosevelt, as well as singing games and dances, unnecessarily slow down the play and seem leftover from the devising process—albeit one that is obviously creatively rich and knows how to draw on the skills of its performers (Nylda Ria Mark’s dancer-like skills are a case in point).
Where Hook & Eye’s real genius lies, however, is in mining the comedy to be had in the nuanced awkwardness of the interaction of strangers through brilliantly pared back dialogue and understated acting. It’s the sort of humor that doesn’t even register as comedy at first, yet slowly and quietly builds to something both genuinely funny and somehow touching. That light touch is particularly apparent in a superb scene as a park ranger (Javan Nelson) and coffee shop owner (Babak) discuss birds with Kunkel’s Jolene, who just wants to be alone, in which interruptions, chatter, and silence are played like fine instruments, but also in the scenes of magic realism when 1933 and 2018 meet. The tension between human connection and bafflement resulting from the imagined overlapping of time is nicely restrained.
These short interactions between the women from different time periods draw out, with fine subtlety, both the human struggles that seem not to change with the times and those that might be unimaginable in other eras. The script and the actors wisely do not overplay the metaphysical weirdness of the encounters, convincingly allowing social norms to guide the conversations, so the audience can enjoy the dramatic irony of Rivka’s comment to Jolene of her fluorescent sneakers that she has never seen “shoes like that” (those ill-chosen sneakers bought by a novice hiker is one of several smart little running jokes throughout the play—again, low key wit is a strength of this production). Nor do they labor the point that, for instance, Tria’s post PhD anxiety is an incomprehensible concern to illiterate and impoverished Maureen—the phrase “first world problems” temptingly springs to mind, but the company never trivializes its characters’ stories. It also avoids overblown sentimentality in the more profound moments of connection, in which Murray does become a more meaningful—if still ghostly—presence; her words echo in Cornelia’s improvised song, overheard by Ani, and when Tria reads a section of Murray’s work, it seems to momentarily spark something in Maureen.
The sneakers and other costume elements are well chosen by Krista Intranuovo. The costumes convey character with expert precision and signal the different eras without looking too “costumey,” in a way that supports the overall approach to the inter-period interactions. The sound design by Nok Kanchanabanka is elegant and atmospheric. Indeed, the scene is first set by sound as we hear the convincing bird song and quiet rustles of the state park, before the lights rise on the nearly bare stage. Music and other non-ambient sound effects mark transitions and create the necessary heightened atmosphere of the more surreal scenes. Alejandro Fajardo’s lighting design similarly works to naturalistically establish time of day through subtle tonal shifts, as well as evoke a ghostly atmosphere, or at times conjure up a subconscious landscape. The designers show skill and taste, and the work of these three complements the necessarily pared-back and flexible scenic design by Patrick Burlingham. A plain cyclorama with the silhouette of hills, a few wooden benches and some moveable sloped platforms are manipulated by the actors to simply convey the basic locations. The rather pristine set, particularly those platforms, could do with a little texture or even foliage to better give a sense of the dirt and bugs, as well as natural beauty, synonymous with the outdoor life. The semi-miming of props also strikes a slightly odd note at times (why hold a soup can, but mime opening it)? These are minor drawbacks—doubtless dictated more by necessity than art—in what is otherwise a smart and cohesive design that works in service of the script and the performance of the actors.
Altogether, Hook & Eye display their ensemble spirit in She-She-She. The acting is excellent and there is evidently a clear, shared vision behind the work that does credit to director Chad Linsey, as well as writer Cynthia Babak. But She-She-She displays some common pitfalls of devised theatre. Too many threads of inspiration are given whimsical exploration to the neglect of a more muscular and focused treatment of the vital, central idea, and while the characters the ensemble have created are compellingly human and superbly embodied, their stories and the meeting of past and present are not developed to their full potential. The premise is intriguing and the promise is there. The company shows intelligence, creativity, wit, and sincerity. Ultimately Hook & Eye would do more with less.
She-She-She runs to June 2., 2018. More production info can be found here.