“Fly Away, Birds of My Frailty”
How Gender Is Set Free In Mammaries of Tiresias

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Stanford’s Theater and Performance Studies and Women* In Theater’s devised adaptation of Mammaries of Tiresias is, in their words, “a rollicking, exploding-in-glitter experiment in surrealist feminism.” The show mixes the script of the 30-page original play, written by the French playwright Guillaume Apollinaire in 1903, with scenes of contemporary settings that often defy narrative altogether. A groundbreaking experiment in politics, feminism, and theater, Mammaries is a must-see.

After talking with director and cast member Davis Leonard (‘19), I learned that many of the modern scenes interwoven with the original play were birthed from creative exercises in rehearsal, which include interpretive dance with balloons and personal stories about sexual assault in bathing suits. These interludes serve as both a response to the play itself and an elaboration on themes unexplored in Mammaries. The original play was novel—so novel, in fact, that it was booed offstage at its 1917 premiere—but it seems at first debatable whether it truly challenges the gender binary. The two main characters of Mammaries, a husband and wife, swap genders, but never truly attempt a non-binary perspective. Yet the fact that they change genders at all is revolutionary for both the time it was written and for now. The adaptation also adds a scene discussing the non-binary and the prejudices associated with transitioning and gender expectations, in which a voiceover of two friends talking about their relation to gender and bullying with a visual of two cast members with their back turned to the audience. This scene encapsulates what seems to be the purpose of the contemporary vignettes: to tie the themes of gender queerness to modern day and highlight the bigotry and challenges facing queer persons.

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The abundance of such subjects makes feminism and sexuality a focal point of the play—one that stays on your mind throughout its entire duration. Mammaries takes traditional gender concepts and turns them on their heads. All five cast members of the play are female-identifying, but inhabit masculine, feminine, and non-binary roles. The questioning of gender roles is intense, and the style of the play highlights this intensity even more so. Two narrators add comic relief as they shout (more than speak) through the play’s introduction; as the play continues, the volume does not turn down. Raised voices, loud music, and poignantly focused emotions are common motifs throughout the piece. My first reaction to this was one of physical shock. It may have been because of the close quarters of the Nitery theater, but I am not used to hearing actors in a play so well that it hurts.

Yet, discomforting as the loud voices may have been, it was a powerful technique to continue questioning gender roles. Though I attempt to be aware of my own prejudices, I realized I had been subconsciously expecting the cast to speak in a soft-spoken manner like “traditional” woman characters. Mammaries reminds us to question everything we view as “acceptable” or “unchangeable” in society. To create change, one cannot be complacent.

Mammaries of Tiresias is anything but traditional. It makes you think and hurt and laugh and feel inspired to object to every institutionalized notion of gender conformity. If you enjoy experimental theater, see this show. If you don’t, see it anyway. Tradition deserves to be protested.

Photos courtesy of Frank Chen

The Mammaries of Tiresias ran from February 23rd to 25th at 8 PM at The Nitery.

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