The poet Adrienne Rich once wrote that whatever goes unspoken becomes unspeakable. That theme inspires this year’s Spring Ex, the Yale University Dramatic Association’s hallmark show this semester, which tells the story of a mystery that cuts to the heart of 17th-century New Haven.
“Strange Flesh,” written by Maxine Dillon ’17, directed by Ellie Boswell ’17 and produced by Samuel Bennett ’19, will run this weekend at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Set in New Haven in 1674, the play follows a young girl named Elea who witnesses an “unspeakable act” between two men. The story raises questions about love, lust and sexuality and how those concepts function in a community founded on puritan principles.
“The play tells a story of this mystery as it unravels and as the town seems to unravel with it,” Dillon said. “It follows a family when they must confront the ways that unspoken things become unspeakable, to tie into that question of where and how we find the language to talk about love and to talk about lust. To fill the silence that exists in between those things.”
Dillon said she derived the play’s title from a lecture given by history professor George Chauncey ’77 GRD ’89 as part of his “U.S. Lesbian and Gay History” lecture course. The lecture, which Chauncey gives annually, focuses on the treatment of sodomy in colonial New England. Dillon began writing the play after first hearing the lecture more than two years ago while shopping the course as a sophomore.
Dillon said she drew on the historical background highlighted in that lecture to provide context to a New Haven very different from the one in which Yale students live today. In 1674, only acts of sexuality that fit the puritanical understanding of Biblical law were legal in the New Haven Colony.
But though the play is set more than 300 years ago, members of the production team interviewed said they hoped its themes would resonate today.
“The play asks a lot of questions about viewpoints and when they’re challenged,” Boswell said. “How do we navigate other paradigms that sort of come into conflict with our own and where do we draw lines? It’s the cliche of being open-minded, but it’s also more than that. … [It’s about] when you take action to defend your values, and when you can be more accommodating.”
The production staff hesitated to give away too much of the play’s plot, as it hinges on some significant narrative turns, but one interesting dramatic feature of “Strange Flesh” is its ambiguous treatment of character roles. Throughout the production process, Dillon said, different crew members have developed different interpretations of who the protagonist is. And a central message of the production, Boswell said, is the difficulty of assigning blame to just one villain.
As the Dramat’s Spring Ex, “Strange Flesh” will run four times within the impressive space of the Yale Repertory Theatre. Though Boswell said the venue has presented somewhat of a learning curve in terms of the production’s scale, she and stage manager Darby Mowell ’18 expressed excitement about the possibilities the space affords.
“It’s an honor to work in the Rep,” Mowell said. “The light and sound systems in particular are exquisite and have made it possible for Ellie’s directorial vision to come to life. The set, props and costumes, however, are minimalist, and the cast consists of only seven people. For that reason, it’s been a very intimate and raw process working on ‘Strange Flesh’ despite the grandeur of the Rep itself.”
The Yale Dramat selects one show for its Spring Ex from student submissions each year.