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Theater Tue May 15 2012
In Shattered Globe Theatre's Her Naked Skin, the year 1913 finds Great Britain's suffragette movement in full force, as women in every class distinction take to the streets, and eventually to its "ladies'" prisons, in protest to demand the right to vote, to serve politically, to make their own life choices, to stand toe-to-toe with the male populace.
The suffragette's fight is far from dainty, as Britannia's iron jawed angels are met with crushing blows from the resistance of Parliament, the fists of intolerance at rallies, the frequent arrests and finally revolving door imprisonment at Holloway, where inmates are met with equal treatment at the hands of hostile matrons, sexually abusive guards, and a physician who smashes through their teeth and lungs to force feed hunger strikers — for humanitarian reasons, of course.
Photo by Kevin Viol
The war cry of the women's' movement attracts a diversity of soldiers, including Lady Celia Cain (Linda Reiter), well-bred and upper classed, but slowly smothering in her marriage to William (Tim Newell), a man who summons all he can emotionally muster to stand by his wife in her open declaration of war in the fight for women's rights, yet grows more tired and drunker from the humiliations and questioning of his manhood from the boys at the club and office. Lady Celia is grateful for her husband's wan support — which wanes as her civil and matrimonial disobedience and Holloway visits become more frequent. As William sinks further into drink and anger, Lady Celia uses her time at Holloway nursing the movement's militancy and becomes closer to the seamstress Eve Douglas (Sheila O'Connor), a young working class woman equally committed to the suffragette movement.
The other suffragettes readily accept the romance of Eve and Lady Celia; prison personnel look away, the women's secret kept safe. Despite the brutal reality of their imprisonment, both blossom individually and in political and romantic partnership. But it's still 1913, and the choices for a woman to live her life as she wants are far more oppressive outside the Holloway walls, as Lady Celia must face upon release.
The women continue their romance, which in freedom's light becomes more subdued, closeted, cloistered. Eventually Lady Celia must face the reality that "equality" requires means and finance, while Eve comes to realize that the gender caste system intertwines with an impenetrable class system and those who scream the loudest for the change of the former are unwilling to sacrifice any part of the latter.
Her Naked Skin can be suffocating and disturbing to view, if only because the more things change, the more things stay the same, or are destined to worsen. We face daily headlines about the new "War on Women," yet I'm not so sure this "war" is so much new as a continuation of what those suffragettes of 1913 faced. Future suffragettes rested upon their singed laurels, calling for cease fire far too early in the battle.
It's hard to view the horror of history and say I enjoyed Her Naked Skin, but I'm certainly glad I saw it, and I highly recommend to anyone who wonders where Rush Limbaugh gets off publicly calling a woman "slut" for advocating birth control choice in 2012 (or anyone who's sitting on pins and needles awaiting the third season of "Downton Abbey"). Shattered Globe's ensemble cast performs seamlessly, gifting us a reenactment of a far away time that's not so far away, and may be a look into our future, but only if there are women willing to spend time away from material comforts and societal status to fight the good fight thru the end.
Special kudos go to the technical team, including scenic designer Andrew Hildner, and lighting designer Charles Jolls, for creating a set where the women's Holloway imprisonment felt like victory and liberation, and life outside prison walls felt stifling, repressive, and without compromise.