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Theatre in Review: My Lingerie Play (Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre)

Diana Oh. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

The full title of My Lingerie Play -- {my lingerie play} 2017: THE CONCERT AND CALL TO ARMS!!!!!!!!! The Final Installation -- should give you an idea of the enthusiasm of the author and star, Diana Oh. The piece is subtitled "10 Underground Performance Installations in my lingerie staged in an effort to provide a saner, safer, more courageous world for women, trans, queer, and non-binary humans to live in." Apparently, Oh has been going around, appearing in public places, such as Times Square, in nothing but her undies, in order to help achieve the utopian state described above.

For her grand finale, Oh has commandeered Rattlestick's Waverly Place venue. The auditorium has been transformed by pink twinkle lights and bursts of glitter confetti. The walls are covered with paper bags with writing on them. Before the show begins, a young woman stands on a soapbox -- which bears the words "This is my soapbox" -- handing out bags, inviting patrons to write on them a response to the question "How do you make a safer and more courageous world for us all?"

What follows is a concert featuring Oh and her band performing in their punk-pop style, combined with Oh's confessions, and plenty of audience participation. (She announces early on that nothing happens without audience permission, and a good thing, too, given some of the squirrelly things that unfold.) We hear about her high school boyfriend; her teenage shoplifting habit, which focused on lingerie; and her time at Smith, when she first began to identify as queer. Describing an annual head-shaving ritual among the student body at Smith, she offers to shear an audience member. At the performance I attended, the show's dramaturg, Mei Ann Teo, volunteered, leading to a discussion of coming out and dealing with one's family. I'm still trying to find the connection between a haircut and spiritual liberation, but maybe you have to be a Smithie to get it.

After this episode, scanning the audience, Oh asks, "Is there anyone who wants to make out with me?" Again, at the performance I attended, a woman in the front row enthusiastically offered to join in, and proceeded to take part in a little teenage necking with Oh. The woman's daughter, who looked to be about 11, was also seated in the front row, gaping at this display. After it was all over, mother and daughter shared a heartfelt embrace. Talk about new approaches to sex education!

Some of Oh's byplay with the audience is amusing and there are one or two effective passages, including a harrowing account of being sexually harassed by a group of guys in a moving vehicle on a dark Brooklyn street. There are also several unmemorable songs, most of them associated with one piece of lingerie or another, each of them symbolic of her sexual progress. The action climaxes with a lengthy rant in which Oh complains that she was raised to be ashamed of sex, "a spiritual act that brings me pleasure;" insists that "until rape is completely eradicated from this world, we are not safe;" and defines patriarchy as "dominance over the female's body. Over the queer person's body. Over the transperson's body." Audience members are invited to express their agreement by clicking their fingers; as you might imagine, the largely twentysomething audience enthusiastically clicked away.

A cross between a Montessori kindergarten and a campus pep rally, My Lingerie Play is the ultimate bubble entertainment, airing a laundry list of ultraliberal pieties to an audience of the already-convinced by a star who seems blissfully unaware that all her provocations were tried long ago. Everyone is invited to join hands and come onstage, just like they used to do in Hair. Preparatory to delivering a rant about the possibility of being arrested for breastfeeding in Idaho, Oh takes off her bra and, staring down the audience, says, "I get it. These are really scary. They're nipples, people. They're just nipples. No one's going to die." If memory serves, the first time I saw bare breasts on a stage was in 1977, when the actress Lynn Milgrim went topless in Simon Gray's Otherwise Engaged. (I never got around to Oh! Calcutta!, where you could see a lot more than just breasts.) It wasn't scary even then, but at least it had a dramatic purpose.

In any case, Oh is backed by a perfectly good trio that includes Ryan McCurdy, Matt Park, and Rocky Vega, all of whom also perform in their underwear. It's not easy to tell what the codirector, Orion Stephanie Johnstone, brought to the table, but I assume they functioned as a stabilizing influence on the star. Kate McGee's lighting has a certain rock-concert zing that keeps things lively. Brendan Aanes' sound design is well-handled, creating a solid balance between the music and vocals.

The finale features the audience in that circle, while Oh sings a number that amounts to her manifesto: "My freedom/Won't be a sacrifice/For this life/You deny/Unchain me." Everyone leaves, having been treated to a warm bath of self-affirmation. Well, I left bemused. Is this tame striptease really what passes for daring, avant-garde theatre these days? -- David Barbour

(10 October 2017)

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