By Phoebe Brooks - Director of Becky Shaw
We’re a few weeks into rehearsals for Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo, the contemporary half of Spicy Witch’s second season. A large part of why we selected this play is the exciting counterpoint it poses to the romantic relationships in Two Gentlemen Of Verona. Both plays contain the archetypal character of the jilted ex. I’m fascinated by how many stories of “twue wuv” spill so much ink on the boyfriend or girlfriend that the love interest will eventually ditch for their soul mate. Structurally, I understand it. If Harry and Sally got together when they met, we would have no movie. A story needs a source of conflict to lend drama to its resolution. Cyrano’s battle against his own low self-esteem is not inherently dramatic, but personify his insecurities in the handsome figure of Christian and suddenly we have a classic play! However these imperfect suitors who serve only as foils to emphasize the perfection of the romantic hero often get a bad rap. But when these ex’s are viable characters, the conflict surrounding the love story gains in dramatic traction. Both Julia in Two Gents and Max in Becky Shaw are passed up by their beloved for a newer models and they spend their respective plays on a quest to win their lovers back. In some ways, they are each an angry ex girl/boyfriend, but because we are privy to their side of the story, suddenly they take center stage. It’s sort of like My Best Friend’s Wedding but with much more woe and much less Rupert Everett.
These are not clean cut moral situations, it’s not as though they’re striving to rescue their princess from an obviously evil king or abusive husband. The plot is driven by the romantic hero’s conviction that they are the best option for their beloved’s affection. We, the audience, end up rooting for the perceived distinction between the True Love our hero could provide and the Convenient Affection the beloved currently has. Our sympathies lie with the romantic hero, and we view their opponent in the battle for the girl as the interloper. However, from the interloper’s point of view, we are cheering for the Other Woman (or Man) and their impending home-wreckitude. In real life, if your friend told you that she was off to “win back” her ex from his new fiancee, you would likely hand her a chill pill and politely suggest she dust off the old OkCupid profile and find somebody new. This leads me to wonder about that adage: all’s fair in love and war. The implied metaphor (love is a battlefield) means that each relationship has an aggressor who successfully conquers the opposing party and absorbs them. I’ll stop before all that saccharine phrasing grosses you out. If love is something you have to win, logic states that there must also be a loser.
So, perhaps noble love is always one-sided, at least at first. The much needed conflict lies in convincing your chosen soul mate to love you over and above someone else. Like a knight in a jousting tournament, or a lady with a rose on the Bachelor, the prize has to be earned. We are taught, time and again, not to give up on the one we love. Unrequited love is a universal touchstone, whether we’re watching Varya wait fruitlessly for a proposal from Lopahkin, or Charlie Brown pining after the little Red-Haired Girl, it breaks our hearts. We empathize so much, we urge these characters to have success so that we might be given a shred of hope regarding our own long-sustaining passions. However, in our more stalker conscious society, these stories of patient passion are starting to lose some of their romance. Suddenly it’s not so cute when Peter Parker’s computer background is a photo of Mary Jane, or Edward watches Bella while she sleeps. The line between passion and obsession has always been a thin one, but as our awareness of the concept of consent increases, these stories of long-suffering devotion lose some of their clout. After all, Menelaus may have sacked Troy to get Helen back, but did they then live happily ever after?
Max and Julia in these two plays illustrate just how far we are willing to debase ourselves in order to win back affection. They go to some pretty extreme lengths but they do have their limits. None of Helena begging to be beaten like 50 shades of spaniels in these plays; when Julia finally confronts Proteus, she lectures him for forcing her into disguise (“It is a lesser blot, modesty finds,/Women to change their shapes than men their minds”). Max, in turn, demands accountability from Suzanna (“Were you waiting for me to walk through the door? This isn’t Jane Austen’s England, Susie. You could’ve walked through it, too”). Despite their abject affection for their ex-lovers, these characters want to retain a measure of pride. They are contenders for affection, not beggars for it. Whether or not their quests are successful remains to be seen (HINT: COME SEE THE SHOWS TO FIND OUT!), but the poignancy of their struggles adds a layer of complexity that grounds these occasionally flighty stories in an emotional reality.