Review: “The Secretaries” (About Face Theatre)

Erin Barlow, Lauren Sivak, Sadieh Rifai, Meghan Reardon/Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Erin Barlow, Lauren Sivak, Sadieh Rifai, Meghan Reardon/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Show: The Secretaries

Company: About Face Theatre

Venue: Theater Wit (1227 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 19

The secretaries don’t murder the men at their local lumber mill because the lumberjacks are bad people. The women cut up their victims, each getting a turn at the chainsaw, because the ladies themselves are morally bankrupt. An important distinction, it turns out. The Greek chorus of office assistants we meet in “The Secretaries” may declare defiantly that their story has no moral, but the loopy satire that revels in their spilled guts and gore says otherwise. Shot through the play’s campy excess is this grain of truth: women become dangerous simply because they are women, and every action they take deserves scrutiny.

Written by the Five Lesbian Brothers, and now receiving its Chicago premiere production courtesy of About Face Theatre, “The Secretaries” embraces tropes from every trashy outlet possible — from lesbian pulp novels, to B-horror flicks, to tawdry revenge tales — all the while lampooning societal hysteria about women in general. The script tackles ludicrous attitudes surrounding menstrual cycles and the fear that butch women will turn feminine women into lesbians, wrapping the writers’ critiques in an entertaining, sharp-edged package. That this production dulls its knife throughout the run-time does not diminish the laughs and glee, but the lack of frenzy in the pacing, and pauses for breath between scenes, makes this experience a safer proposition than intended.

Patty (Erin Barlow) is new to the office pool at Cooney Lumber Mill in Big Bone, Oregon. She loves working under demanding executive assistant Susan (Kelli Simpkins), who has formed her underlings into a cult that exercises extreme devotion to Slim Fast and celibacy. Competitive Ashley (Meghan Reardon) doesn’t appreciate coming in second to Patty in the “secretary of the month” contest. Peaches (Sadieh Rifai) is scrutinized by male higher-ups for her weight. And Dawn (Lauren Sivak) nurses a not-so-secret crush on the newbie in the office. Once Patty begins a romantic relationship with foreman Buzz (also played by Sivak), the clique moves quickly to integrate her into their monthly murder scenarios, and she must choose whether to be a good girl or a bad, possibly bisexual, killer.

Director Bonnie Metzgar encourages her ensemble to milk every larger than life emotional breakdown and noirish direct address moment, with mostly stellar results. Barlow is at her best when she transitions into present day, world-weary Patty, speaking to the audience with the dead eyes of a woman who’s in too deep and has seen too much. Sivak’s exaggeration of lunk-headed masculine posture is a real treat, as is her insistent seduction of Barlow while playing Dawn. Meanwhile, Rifai anchors one of the play’s few sincere moments, when she recounts her dieting problems to our heroine. In a role that could be played solely for comedic effect (her lip-syncing to pop songs during scenic transitions provides plenty of laughs), Rifai adds heart to the proceedings. Ultimately, it’s Simpkins as the boss who sets the tone for the other performers; her icy Susan commands the stage with angular poses and ludicrous sexual advances. Her showdown with Sivak over their celibacy agreement is largely memorable because it features sexual gymnastics that defy logic while tapping into the zany abandon of desire.

Meghan Reardon, Kelli Simpkins, Sadieh Rifai, Lauren Sivak, Erin Barlow/Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Meghan Reardon, Kelli Simpkins, Sadieh Rifai, Lauren Sivak, Erin Barlow/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

While the actresses expertly mine the play’s dramatic tropes for comedy gold, the pacing of this production still feels off. I wonder if the two hour run-time is due less to the exaggerated performances, and more to the design elements at play. I thoroughly enjoyed the lurid spray of Rachel K. Levy’s pink, purple, and blood-red lights, which were often contrasted by stark white squares highlighting forbidden office windows. However, there were so many cues to run through from scene to scene, a pared-down approach might have helped the pace. Likewise, William Boles’ revolving set delighted, with the office furniture never arriving in the same spot twice. But the constant movement on such a small stage slowed the performance, and drained some of the energy from busy actors.

At one point during the play, a couple of men in front of me felt the need to look away from the murderous women onstage. Not because anyone held an axe or a chainsaw. Not because their emotional blackmail was reaching a climactic point. No, the guys shuddered because the women held out used tampons, to be collected by Susan for never-explained research. Likely, it is the least sinister thing that happens across the entire production. Yet the Five Lesbian Brothers are smart to know it will evoke discomfort. “The Secretaries” points out, using trashy cultural artifacts, that the only thing we cannot forgive is being female in the first place.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: I can never unsee what happened between Dawn and Susan.

RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”