Jen Silverman’s absurdist dark comedy "Bonnets (how ladies of good breeding are induced to murder)" is a feisty feminist fable
Jen Silverman’s Bonnets (how ladies of good breeding are induced to murder) is so violent that it took a fight director and two assistants to choreograph it. Death by poison arrow, chainsaw, Ninja—it’s all there for your delight and horror. Even God, a character in the play who opens every scene, is powerless to stop it.
The chorus of one song in Bonnets goes like this:
Chop, chop, chop, chop, chop, chop
We killed a man a-piece and we just couldn't stop!
Glug, glug, glug, glug, munch, munch,
Join me for tea-time, you might not live to lunch.
Will anyone survive in the dark comedy that runs February 16-19 at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre?
Pricilla Lindsay, who directs University of Michigan theater students, says the play shifts between three eras. “Silverman picked three of the many times men have subjugated women—Salem in 1690, England in the 1890s, and France in the 1600’s, during the reign of Louis XIV. All three periods are not special but indicative of women being moved to the side. In our play, women wreak havoc and get revenge by actually murdering.”
These women don’t stop at killing their abusers.
“A young girl who is having an affair with a married man accuses his wife of being a witch,” Lindsay says. After his wife hangs, the man decides to leave for Boston—without his young paramour. ”You’re dead to me,” she declares.
In this play, that can only mean one thing.
In the script, God is a voice-over. Lindsay has put Her on stage, dressed like a Hollywood star from the 1930s. She snaps Her fingers, plays with a Tarot deck, and engages in other stage business, adding to the fun.
Lindsay reports that there are time warps—a character from one period may show up in another, and the characters in a scene may wonder who the interloper is. Language is anachronistic, with today’s vernacular spoken in historical times.
Dramaturg Karin Waidley says the play is “dangerous.”
Lindsay calls it “delicious. ”
“Female-identifying characters express anger at men who patronize women and usurp their position in society,” Waidley says, explaining that with all the violence in the world today, this walks a fine line between empowering women and condoning violence. “It isn’t indiscriminate violence,” she adds.
Lindsay concurs. “It’s feisty and courageous, and it walks a fine line. It may be offensive to some people.”
Waidley reports that the women characters wear corsets. “A corset restricted her figure and literally kept her in her place. Corsets take over the individuality of the women,” Waidley says, “until they throw them off, literally and symbolically.”
Costume designer Mallory Edgell says most characters wear white throughout most of the show, emphasizing purity. But as women are released from purity and perfection, the palette shifts to red.
“The silhouettes become heavily influenced by punk fashions of the 1990s," Edgell says. "Almost every outfit in the show has an overlay of text. These letters…work to amplify the idea of women's voices being silenced throughout history. Even though they can't say all their thoughts and opinions out loud, they are still there.”
The very busy fight choreographer is Christina Traister, aided and abetted by Erik Dagoberg and Atticus Olivet. The creative team is set designer Laurence Vance, costume designer Mallory Edgell, lighting designer Shelby Loera, and sound designer Henry Reynolds. The stage manager is Paulina Titterington. The cast includes Audrey Andrews, Kaylin Gines, Sarah Hartmus, Sophia Karaz, Ashley Kramer, Sophia Lane, Grace Lutenske, Alyssa Melani, Tessie Morales, Olivia Sinnott, and Casey Wilcox.
This 11-character satiric play blends elements of camp and punk rock with historical references. All of the roles, including two male characters and God, of course, are played by women.
The play was commissioned by U-M and 13 other schools in a consortium created by the Big Ten theater department chairs to encourage plays by and about women.
“They ask a playwright to create a play with at least six substantial age-appropriate roles for women, ” says Lindsay, adding that men may be included, but Silverman wanted the men’s roles in this to be played by women, too. Each school kicks in $1,000, so the playwright earns 14K upfront, as well as royalties after the first year; schools in the consortium don’t have to pay a royalty in the first year.
Bonnets is the fifth play the Big Ten Theatre Consortium commissioned, but not all of the plays have been done by every school. Six schools produced Bonnets before U-M.
“We have a season selection committee made up of students and faculty,” Lindsay reports. “Students have big opinions. … They read many plays, and Bonnets rose to the top."
Lindsay will retire this year, making this her last production.
“The more I work on this, the more I am in awe of Jen Silverman’s writing,” she says. “I’m overjoyed to be doing Bonnets.”
Ann Arbor-based freelancer Davi Napoleon did her undergraduate work at the University of Michigan and holds a doctorate in theater history, theory, and criticism from New York University. She briefly taught theater history and directed at Albion College and taught writing the magazine article, dramatic literature, and composition classes in the English department at Eastern Michigan University.
"Bonnets (how ladies of good breeding are induced to murder)" runs from February 16-19 at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N University Ave., Ann Arbor. For tickets and further information, visit tickets.smtd.umich.edu. A post-show discussion will happen on February 17.