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How 17th-century Canadian history inspired this meditation on contemporary sexuality
The performance of femininity; 17th-century Canadian history; a half-man, half-pig podcaster; Claymation and morbid doo-wop songs. All of these disparate elements figure in the hollower, an ambitious new play by Liza Birkenmeier. Produced by New Light Theater Project, the jam-packed show reflects the singular sensibility of the Relentless Award finalist as she makes unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated things, such as the societal mistreatment of women in New France (now Canada) in the 1600s and how we live in contemporary suburban America.
Listening to Birkenmeier describe the inspirations for and evolution of the hollower helps make these associations clear. "I heard a podcast about this 17th-century French King who was sending women over to New France to help populate but also colonize and terrorize the Americas so that the fur traders there could make babies and compete with the population of England's America," says Birkenmeier in one breath. "This whole scene really got me going!"
Her initial impulse was to dramatize the story of these so-called les filles du roi (King's daughters), women of humble birth who were paid by the French government to abandon their homeland and settle in a harsh new landscape to procreate. "But staging the brutality of that and the colonizing of the Americas didn't interest me so much," Birkenmeier says. As she wrote and rewrote, she realized that what fascinated her about their tale was how it seemed to reflect today's society. "We are still living under what is an imperialist rule," she says. "Contemporary suburban America is still a violent and moralistic place -- especially when it comes to the performance of femininity and the sexuality of women."
So now les filles du roi are the subject of a Claymation movie being made by Bit (Reyna de Courcy), a sexually charged 16 year old living in a Florida suburb with Otto (Patrena Murray), a depressed, middle-aged queer woman whose girlfriend recently left. Bit is constantly testing out modes of femininity and pushing to get reactions from Otto and Wilkin (Samuel Im), an 18 year old described as the "Polanski of Claymation."
While writing Bit, Birkenmeier drew on her experiences as a former tutor. "I met a couple of teenagers whose burgeoning sexualities were really in my face," she says, recalling how one student couldn't get through a particular lesson without saying "penis." Similarly, Bit is obsessed with the filles du roi narrative. "She loves the idea of being traded to a fur person in Canada, because this is the world we live in," says Birkenmeier. That fascination with victimhood manifests in her relationship with Wilkin, as he exerts influence and control over her, and manipulates the Claymation film away from Bit's original intentions. "The way he interacts with a slightly younger girl is only possible in a patriarchy," Birkenmeier says, pointing out how their artistic project becomes his -- not because Bit is less talented, but because his genius is assumed whereas hers isn't. To try to counter this imbalance of power, Bit makes a number of passes at Wilkin, and eventually sexually assaults him. The scene is fueled with gleeful feral energy. "Our director, Kristy Dodson, has done a great job of staging it," says Birkenmeier. "We don't often see a 16-year-old girl doing that to an 18-year-old boy. We're in an appropriate amount of peril for that interaction."
So how do the Pigman podcaster (Ryan Wesley Stinnett) and the "funeral doom doo-wop" combo the Chemotherapy Marionettes factor in? Much of the joy of the hollower is watching Birkenmeier's unfettered imagination unspool onstage without giving away too many spoilers. Chances are you'll leave the theatre pondering some pretty heady concepts, such as the fetishization of victimhood, sexual and gender otherness, and "a lot of conflicting ideas about what sex is that we all in some way experience."
To read about a student's experience at the hollower, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Top image: Patrena Murray and Reyna de Courcy in the hollower. Photos by Hunter Canning.