Low Level Panic ran in the Hepburn Zoo from April 14-16. The senior 700 work of Ele Woods ’11, Jess Spar ’11 and Lindsey Messmore ’11, the piece was written by Clare McIntyre during the decline of the feminist movement in 1987 Britain, and explored the tenuous dynamic between women, sex and objectification. Panic was both a simplistic and hugely complex performance: though the play was set in a small bathroom populated with sparse props and featured only three actresses, the messages carried within the piece stood out against the minimalist backdrop and resonated deeply within the audience through the powerful acting and starkness of the stage. The Hepburn Zoo, with its intimate seating arrangements, was the perfect venue for the performance; it was almost as if the audience was sitting in the bathroom with the performers.
Panic tells the stories of three women — Jo, Mary and Celia — who are housemates relegated to sharing a single bathroom in London’s East End. It is in this room where they can express themselves honestly, share their most intimate dreams and fears, and ultimately, try to discover what it means to be a beautiful woman. Like the bathroom in which it takes place, Panic is oftentimes bright and warm, and at other times wet and messy as it explores female fears of both sexual fantasy and assault, and the idea of the “perfectly beautiful woman.”
Woods played Jo, a woman who outwardly expresses her sexuality through clothing and fantasies, and who constantly urges Mary to cut loose as well. Her character begins the play lounging nude in a bathtub, ranting about yet another romantic fantasy concerning her “perfect man.” Jo appears at first to be the loudmouth of the play — the confident counterpart to the demure Mary. Yet underneath her confidence and bravado, Jo is overwhelmingly insecure about both her body and her sexuality. She is constantly checking herself in the mirror and has dark sexual fantasies about being “watched” by other men, or having sex with multiple partners in rapid succession. One particularly striking scene finds Jo standing in front of the bathroom mirror, haunted by the weight of these fantasies and her desperation. The audience hears a voice-over of Jo imagining a particularly vivid and grotesque fantasy, and as her thoughts escalate to scenes of sexual violence and degradation, she jolts back from the mirror, halting the voiceover. Disgusted with herself, she flees the bathroom. The audience learns that her bawdy personality is just a façade for her deepest fears — she often wonders if she will ever find a partner, or if she is simply doomed to a life of crawling around parties in glittery outfits looking for a perfect man. Woods’ proficiency at both comedy and drama shone through in this role; it seemed natural for her to play the spunky Jo, with her outrageous dreams and snarky commentary. But as the play continued and Jo’s duality began to emerge, so too did Woods’ dramatic acting, and she slowly drew out the fears buried deep within her character’s psyche.
Spar’s portrayal of Mary serves as a jolting foil to Jo’s bawdy character. Mary is logical and inquisitive, and uncomfortable with dressing up to impress men at parties. The audience is introduced to her character as she reads a pornographic magazine to Jo, mocking the nude models and the crude sexual language used in the publication. Though she attempts to act logical, there is something dark lurking behind her façade, much like in Jo’s character: she seems to be always on the verge of a breakdown, especially when she gets riled up about her gender and identity. A flashback halfway through the play alerts us to the reason behind this —Mary was sexually assaulted coming home from work one night. In a jarring solo scene highlighting Spar’s command over her character, Mary converses with two male voiceovers that see her unlocking her bike and ask in perverse tones to “go for a ride”. When Mary refuses their advances, she is assaulted and enacts the brutal crime using her own hands; when the men “leave” the scene, the horrific spectacle ends with Mary’s guttural scream of shame and rage. Since she was wearing a skirt that night and perhaps looked “more attractive” than usual, Mary tries to rationalize what happened by saying, “Maybe if I was wearing trousers, it wouldn’t have happened.” The incident haunts her throughout the play, and it influences her to become the speaker of truths among the three protagonists. For instance, when the girls are preparing for a party, Mary refuses to wear a revealing dress Jo bought for her, and in a fit of determination and fury, decides to dye the dress in the middle of the night to make it less attractive and “more to her style,” declaring that it is unnecessary to dress up if you are uncomfortable and cannot be yourself.
Celia, played by Sara Lusche ’13, does not get as much stage-time as Mary and Jo. Not much is known about her character; she begins as a poised and confident woman, though we learn later that she is actually very quick-tempered and is angry about sharing the bathroom, so she releases her anger and frustration on Jo. Conversely, Jo is jealous of the fact that Celia always seems to find men to take home.
Though it carried shades of feminism, Panic was able to relate to both men and women alike by introducing its heavy themes slowly through Jo’s humor and Mary’s rationalism. Though they were hard-hitting and brutally honest, the messages were not didactic or shoved in the audience’s face, and McIntyre’s delicately written dialogue was both sensitive and gripping.
Messmore did not intend to direct a “feminist” piece for her 700 thesis, but she became hooked on McIntyre’s authenticity and edgy writing. As a result of this admiration and dedication to McIntyre’s art, her direction was spot-on to what the playwright intended for the piece. The lighting design was also a noteworthy aspect of the play — the brightness of the bathroom was an indicator of the piece’s current mood, and made it seem as though the bathroom itself were a fourth character complete with moods and a personality. Nighttime scenes bathed the stage in cool blues, setting the stage for the characters’ honest discussions, while a gentle light outside the bathroom’s “window” heralded a beautiful sunny morning. Notably, the flashback to Mary’s sexual assault was a dim, sinister yellow as though the incident occurred underneath a streetlamp.
It has been 24 years since Panic was written, but the themes presented still remain relevant to this day, especially in light of the relationship/hookup dichotomy on college campuses and how college girls view themselves in these situations. At Panic’s end, the question still remained whether or not the three women would overcome their darkness and embrace their beauty. However, through the performance’s superb acting and direction, McIntyre’s message rung out strongly: be yourself, be comfortable in your body and no matter what fears or insecurities you may hold in your heart, life goes on, and there is no need to panic.