Eight insane women walk into a boardroom. All expectations to the contrary, this is not the start of a bad bar joke. Rather, it is the central premise of Arthur Kopit’s “Chamber Music,” a one-act absurdist play directed by Katie McGerr DRA ’14.
“Chamber Music” is staged at the Yale Cabaret, with a set that is simple and spartan without being seedy. The play incorporates the room into the scene, utilizing the window and fireplace of the theater as props, so that the actual set consists simply of a long wooden table and an old phonograph. The year is 1938; the room is in the women’s wing of a lunatic asylum. And eight inmates, who identify themselves as famous women from across the centuries, are holding a board meeting.
Most of the women are definitely and obviously mad. Joan of Arc (Marissa Neitling DRA ’13) — or someone who thinks herself Joan of Arc — marches in with a large wooden cross, nearly colliding with silent film actress Pearl White (Mariko Nakasone DRA ’14). Meanwhile, Isabella of Spain (Ceci Fernandez DRA ’14) glowers imposingly in her chair as Mozart’s wife Constanze (Sophie von Haselberg DRA ’14) listens to the phonograph and bristles at the mention of Bach.
“Chamber Music” is not a very plot-oriented play. Instead, it runs on sheer force of personality, combined with a continuous and hilarious stream of literary and historical in-jokes. To some extent, the brilliance of the play relies on the viewer’s prior knowledge of the women depicted. For example, someone who is familiar with Gertrude Stein’s (Michelle McGregor DRA ’14) infamously repetitive and unbroken writing style will appreciate her irregular stutter in the play on a level that others might miss.
However, it doesn’t take a deep knowledge of the subject matter for “Chamber Music” to be entertaining. Each woman has her distinctive madness mantra, from Joan’s “My pants are getting rusty!” to Queen Isabella’s rant about Columbus and his apparent unconcern for finding the wrong continent, as long as there are pretty native women. The tipping point of “Chamber Music” lies in these women’s voices, which the actors capture brilliantly. As the inmates speak, it is possible to forget that they are mad. They begin to seem less like lunatics and more like strong-willed women who are simply extraordinarily colorful and eccentric.
Here, “Chamber Music” ceases to be simple, because among the inmates is Amelia Earhart (Monique Barbee DRA ’13), and she is sane. She just wants to get out — but nobody believes her. In a context where only madwomen are strong and eccentric, it is all too easy to suppose that strong and eccentric women must all be mad. There is no help from the other women, who ridicule her for her insistence that she is sane. There is even less help from the doctor (Fisher Neal DRA ’12), who treats all the women with a paternal and infuriating condescension. The doctor refers to them as his “lovely ladies,” and never bothers to ask them how they feel about the state of their minds, caring only that they be good girls and smile — “not the itty-bitty smile, the big one!”
In these conditions, Barbee’s Earhart is witty, sarcastic and eminently likeable. She goes through the women’s meeting with an air of resignation and rising exasperation at their increasingly paranoid assumptions and outlandish plans. Eventually, the other women turn on her, claiming the need to kill her for the “women’s cause.”
“Chamber Music” is undeniably a feminist play, but it is hard to pin down its exact opinion about feminism. It is a critique of both sides: the condescending patriarchy that labels a sane woman mad for being stronger and more interesting than socially accepted, and the women who are too willing to harm and ridicule other women. As clear as the message is, it is couched in enough hilarity to make “Chamber Music” appealing regardless of one’s views on feminism, and this clever comedy is the play’s greatest strength, allowing it to make its point without driving it home with a sledgehammer.