The Secretaries

The Secretaries by The Five Lesbian Brothers – NY Fringe Festival 2010

by The Five Lesbian Brothers

(Maureen Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibbell, Peg Healey & Lisa Kron)

directed by Mark Finley

with
Virginia Baeta, Elizabeth Bell, Jamie Heinlein, Karen Stanion and Elizabeth Whitney
Winners of the Fringe Overall Excellence for Ensemble Acting Award


Set in the mill town of Big Bone, Oregon, The Secretaries follows the lives of five women who work in the office of Cooney Lumber, where every 30 days…well something involving chainsaws and lumberjacks happens. And it’s not pretty. The story is told in flashback by Patty Johnson (Elizabeth Whitney), as she recalls her initiation into the cult-like Cooney coven, led by Susan Curtis (Jamie Heinlein). Office suck-up Ashley Elizabeth Fratangelo (Karen Stanion) is jealous of the new arrival; office lesbian Dawn Midnight (Virginia Baeta) wants to go out with her (as does lumberjack Buzz Benikee, played by Baeta in a dual role); and Peaches Martin (Elizabeth Bell), just wants to eat something.

Reviews

Under any circumstances, do NOT miss The Secretaries, currently sharing the Lucille Lortel Theatre with several other Fringe Festival entries. Written by the gifted Five Lesbian Brothers, it is screamingly funny, effectively and swiftly directed by Mark Finley (who did an amazing job with (Chris Weikel’s) Pig Tale a few years back), and showcases the most captivating group of actresses in town. This is what ensemble acting is all about. I defy you to pick out the best one; it’s simply impossible, they are all just perfect. The Secretaries has four more performances…May I suggest you get your tickets ASAP? If not, I fear that once the word of mouth gets around, you’ll be standing on the outside looking in. Don’t say you haven’t been warned! — Marie Becker, Out FM

At Cooney Lumber in Big Bone, Oregon the secretaries are all on the same cycle, Slim Fast is a religion, and the mill loses a lumberjack every 29 days.

Written by The Five Lesbian Brothers and first produced at the WOW Café in 1993, the play explores a specifically and deliciously lesbian form of camp, with pre-stonewall stereotypes, fun with tampons, and sex charged power plays that masquerade as female bonding. The Secretaries is an exploration of the way women not only internalize sexism but enforce it among one another. Disturbingly, in its current run as part of NYC’s Fringe Festival, the play is as current in 2010 as it was in the nineties.

Elizabeth Whitney shines in the lead role as naive new girl Patty Johnson. Through flashbacks, Patty shares her tale of having joined a murderous secretarial cult. At first the character seems like a dead-ringer for Elizabeth Moss’ Peggy on Mad Men (even though the play obviously predates the series), with her humble ambitions, latent feminism, and catch-all front bang curl, but as the play, along with her hair, unfurls, Whitney’s performance really carries the production.

In the beginning she’s the sweet, up-and-coming office starlet earning her prized secretary-of-the-month sweater set after only a week on the job but quickly she becomes an integral part of the office drama. Former office fave Ashley Elizabeth Fratangello (Karen Stanion) hates her, office lesbian Dawn Midnight (Virginia Baeta) wants to do her, and office submissive Peaches Martin (Elizabeth Bell), just wants to be liked by her. Patty, despite signing a required celibacy contract, starts sleeping with lumberjack Buzz, also played by Baeta. This first hint of Patty’s sexual independence slowly—truthfully, maybe too slowly at times—gives way to an all out Amazonian rage, a particular brand of womanly rage rarely seen outside of our own over-the-top, queer lives.

Part office-culture comedy, part over-the-top campy thriller, and part quirky feminist satire, The Secretaries is a smart, insightful, and fun romp through the complex worlds of the homosocial. Although the Greek chorus at the end of the play insists that what we’ve witnessed isn’t fable or allegory, The Secretaries certainly asks some sophisticated and twisted questions about femininity, sexuality, and the urge to retaliate. No surprise that this production is brought to the Lucille Lortel Theatre by TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence), the Off-Off Broadway production team founded in 1974 as the first professional gay theater company.

If you’re in New York this is a must-see Fringe Festival performance for all the right reasons. — velvetpark.com

The Five Lesbian Brothers’ raunchy, gory satire from 1993, The Secretaries, is currently playing in a spirited revival at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. A new era and a new cast (and the bare-bones production values of FringeNYC) blunt the chain-saw sharpness of the original, but only a little, and a play that was born in a time when killer-lesbian movies (some of which are name-checked in the play) seemed to be everywhere holds up well in the Age of True Blood.

We are in Big Bone, Oregon, where the pert and perfect Patty, our narrator, has just been hired into a secretarial pool at the Cooney Lumber Company. It doesn’t take her long to notice that things are a little strange: Her four co-workers are obsessed with body weight and with pleasing their powerful (offstage) boss, Mr. Combuncture. Alright, perhaps there’s nothing too odd there, so how about this: The ladies have a fetish for Slim-Fast shakes, share the same menstrual cycle (there will be tampons), and once a month have a Dionysian bacchanal in the woods where they kill and dismember a lumberjack (and allow themselves pizza, for a night).

The play has many targets for its satire, perhaps foremost the idea that women are most fulfilled in the roles of nurturing caregivers (“We don’t kill them because they’re bad, we kill them because we’re bad,” one of the secretaries explains to Patty). At the same time, there is the notion that women (all of us, really) become monstrous when they swallow like a Slim-Fast shake the expectations placed on them by a society obsessed with bodily perfection and constricting gender roles. Possibly the most successful dismantling is the assumption that lesbians and/or feminists are dour and humorless. (“I’m not a feminist, I can take a compliment!” says Patty.)

The Secretaries is performed by five terrific comic actors: Virginia Baeta, Karen Stanion, Elizabeth Whitney, Jamie Heinlein, and Elizabeth A. Bell. The direction by Mark Finley keeps things moving, though there are scenes that could be more focused, and he cannot prevent the play from losing some steam as it goes on, a problem even in its original incarnation. The costumes by Ellen Reilly are effective….The sold-out audience I attended had a great time with this murderous crew, and I suspect you will too. — Gary Schrader, nytheatre.com