“We are secretaries and we do things secretarial.”
“And once a month we kill a guy and cut him up for burial! (shh)”
Thus spake the amanuenses of the Cooney Lumber Mill, empowered professional women with elaborately coiffed hair, high heels and murderous intentions. The production of “The Secretaries” currently playing at the Yale (not Calhoun) Cabaret is a perfectly entertaining slice of riotous, gory fun that locates the fine line between hilarity and terror and dismembers it, all while smearing its blood over its naked chest.
Written by The Five Lesbian Brothers (Maureen Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibbell, Peg Healey and Lisa Kron), a female performing/playwriting collective, The Secretaries takes place in the office of the aforementioned Cooney Lumber Mill, through the eyes of newbie Patty Johnson (Jenelle Chu), a sweet, sensitive girl trying to fit in with her fellow coworkers and impress her boss, the dictatorial Susan Curtis (Chalia La Tour). As time progresses, however, Patty begins to feel that something is off about her new job: Susan collects her employees’ tampons in a plastic bag, forces them to stick to a strict diet of Slim-Fast shakes and prompts them to sign celibacy agreements. As the weeks pass, Patty is steadily inducted into this bizarre new world, as group dynamics shift and sexual tension grows, only to discover that her fellow secretaries are part of a deranged murder cult that ritualistically slaughters one of the mill’s lumberjacks at the end of each month.
This is unabashed camp, an onstage rendition of the lurid exploitation one finds while surfing the shadier corners of Youtube and tiptoeing around the back ends of video stores. It’s relentlessly entertaining, provocative and occasionally vomitous theater, a self-aware, postmodern gore-fest that fully embraces its sordid source material. The actors shine with sweat before the glare of the bright, accented lighting, enunciate heavily as they sink their teeth into these gleefully cheesy lines (“I’m no feminist. I know how to take a joke!”) and grimace grotesquely during entrances and exits. All are spectacular, but of particular note is Annelise Lawson as Peaches Martin, an anxious, ingratiating secretary trying to lose weight to meet her overseer’s expectations. Lawson’s performance is a tour de force of steadily mounting hysteria, and she hilariously exposes giddiness as the flipside of repressed violence.
On a superficial level, the play is a spooky tale for a spooky time of year, and this production, which is both genuinely unnerving and genuinely funny, works perfectly well as pure entertainment. However, it’s also a searing satire of group dynamics, the public perception of lesbians, what it means to be empowered in the modern world and the way in which women can inadvertently perpetuate misogyny through group shaming and one-upmanship.
The idea of camp is built, essentially, upon a distinct aesthetic that typically has the effect of leaching creative content of ideological core. This is not to suggest that camp is inferior to so-called high art, just that it necessarily trends towards the apolitical in favor of seduction-via-spectacle. This is what renders the high achievement of the play all the more luminous: it’s a nasty little joyride of a horror-comedy that somehow functions simultaneously as a blistering social critique without diluting the visceral grip of its exploitative trappings.
Tickets are unfortunately 12 dollars each. They are, however, well worth the money.