Spindle, shuttle, needle: the tools of women’s handiwork from the preindustrial age; also among the key moving parts of the machines in the textile industry, the first dominant industry at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. It’s also the title of a lesser-known Grimm’s fairy tale about a girl whose enchanted tools earn her the love of a prince (and of course spindles in particular make fairly frequent appearances, from “Sleeping Beauty” to “Rumpelstiltskin”; a needle plays a critical role in “Snow White,” too). Gab Reisman’s Spindle Shuttle Needle, directed with a marvelous lightness of touch by Tamilla Woodard as the second production in Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks festival, draws from both historical wellsprings (Reisman credits them in the script’s headnote, along with Caryl Churchill, whose Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and Fen seem particularly clear precursors).
The play mixes historical specificity with archetypal settings and character, a few truly weird Grimm’s Tales (I would have wagered real money that Reisman had created “The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage” to fit the specific tone of her play, and I would have been wrong), and brashly anachronistic language and tone to create a whole with revealing contemporary resonance. Set in 1813 in the kingdom of Saxony, Spindle Shuttle Needle features a group of women (and the occasional soldier) trapped in the cottage of the weaver Tilda (Mia Katigbak, bringing her trademark blend of gravitas and wryness) by the circumstances of their world: By the Napoleonic wars–Tilda’s village has been decimated and her son conscripted. By poverty–Tilda and her daughter, Hanni (Zoë Geltman) are weavers barely getting by, and their neighbors are starting to leave town to work in the new textile mills in Silesia. By gender–Tilda’s been called a witch more than once; she never had a husband and her children were fathered by a Habsburg soldier from “the war two wars ago”; she can’t join the weavers’ guild and must take the prices she can get for her goods. By debt–we don’t know exactly how Tilda got into debt to a local burger, but she’s repaying it by hiding his daughter, Charlotte (Monique St. Cyr), from the latest campaign of the latest war. They’ve also taken in Jules (Florencia Lozano), a Neapolitan escapee from the Grande Armée with a mysterious past.
Everyone, especially Charlotte, desperate for correspondence with her family and for the higher society she’s isolated from, is miserable and more scared than they’ll admit. (Charlotte’s particular species of naïveté about their circumstances is both annoying and risky enough that Jules and Tilda tend to drug her just a wee bit in her stew so she won’t do anything too rash while the others are sleeping; St. Cyr makes sure that Charlotte’s privileged thoughtlessness is tempered by sweetness.) Food is scarce, the postman scarcer, and their only contact with the outside world is periodic visits from the Fleecer (Tina Benko), who trades them the materials they need to make the blankets they can sell at the fair. If the fair ever comes back. If the siege ever ends. If the world ever returns to normal, as challenging as that normal itself was. Still, they’re getting by, even finding their moments of joy when they can (the scene where Tilda teaches Jules and Charlotte how to use a spinning wheel is a marvel whose sexy delights I will not spoil)–until a dying Polish soldier (Seth Clayton) crashes through their door, and recognizes Charlotte from a wanted notice in the press. And until Hanni steals his uniform to sneak off to the fair. If there is a fair . . . though once she discovers the freedom and economic opportunity offered to a person presumed male, she might not be coming back in any case. The siege might end, temporarily, but after all there’s almost certainly going to be another siege any minute. There always is.
All of this sounds grim, but the piece is much funnier and lighter than its plot details suggest. Spindle Shuttle Needle uses modern language, modern character sensibilities, and a modern, nonliteral approach to casting to great effect; Reisman and Woodard operate deftly in the gap between one period and the other. (The tone reminds me a bit of the TV show Dickinson, but with much more serious purpose and attention paid to the relevance of history.) And the control of tone is very tight—it would be easy for the sharp irony to turn into cheap jokes, but it never does.
You’re always going to get a crisp, first-rate production from Summerworks, and this is no exception. Woodard does excellent, precise work with the entire ensemble (which comprises a veritable greatest hits of indie theater). The scenes where different characters are ostensibly speaking languages mutually incomprehensible to one another (all English to the audience) get particular kudos for juggling humor, tragedy, and potential danger, as Seth Clayton’s Piotr tells the soldier’s war experiences completely straight, with the exhaustion and matter-of-factness of someone who’s been through hell, and Florencia Lozano’s Jules, with inadequate Polish, gets the occasional dribble of content and conveys it to the rest of the women. Fan Zhang’s sound design and Barbara Samuels’s lighting convey the murk of war every time the women open their door. Frank J. Oliva’s set, with its clever table that turns into two functional spinning wheels, makes us really feel how cramped the cottage is for four people. I found the sections outside the cottage less successful, scenically, if only because the transition is a bit belabored, which blunts the realization of a key transition in the script a bit.
Because the quiet release of the women’s escape from the cabin are almost heartbreaking in their simplicity–Tilda needs to get a permit and is surprised how easy it is. There are pretzels, and apples. There is dancing. There are people again. There’s a possibility of making enough money to survive the next winter, or the next siege.
As you may have gathered, not only does Reisman have a lot to say about the dawn of modern capitalism, gender, and poverty, but the play also has some deeply contemporary resonances in a moment where we have a newly acute understanding of what it feels like to be trapped in one’s home with an implacable, incomprehensible enemy surging and ebbing outside. The overwhelming sense of relief at the thought of the siege ending, the moment of joy at seeing people gathered together once more, only to feel the weight of danger crashing down once more–well, let’s just say “Hot Vax Summer” comes inevitably to mind. As I celebrate the return of the much-beloved Summerworks, I hope that we are not, like the women here, about to be resignedly awaiting the next siege.