Why We Have a Body opens with an honest-to-God perfect 15 minutes. The night I attended, it began with actress Ambar Aranaga pointing a gun at one of my dates and saying: "Yes! This is a holdup. Now listen, I will only say this once: I am the way things go."
She proceeded to tell my date, who was supposed to be running the register at a 7-Eleven, that she's been called "The Lark, La Pucelle, deceiver of the people, sinner, murderess, saint, invoker of devils, an idolatrous, cruel, dissolute heretic, so I think this gives me some room to talk." I guess she thought my date was looking a little too nervous, so she assured him he wouldn't be shot and with what looked like honest concern suggested he try keeping his negative energy in check. Aranaga was more cute than menacing, but you could understand my date's jitters: This chick was far too flaky to trust with firearms. She seemed to trip in and out of coherency, and I wasn't quite sure if she was about to burst out crying or laughing.
Like Aranaga, the scene seemed in danger of undoing the weight of its own fevered premise, and all of a sudden, Aranaga seemed to forget what she was doing and began declaiming what might have been free-verse poetry or maybe the play's metaphysical mission statement ("If you think you can love me unconditionally, press one... You cannot return to the main menu at any time!"). It all moved too quickly for anyone to be certain, but it was impossible to be bored. The language being used, the oblique Joan of Arc references ("The Lark," alouette in French, was one of Joan's handles, as was "La Pucelle," which means the virgin), Aranaga's ridiculous bubbliness — it was all too much, packed with too many textures and moods and ideas to get a grip on all at once. We figured we were in for a treat. We also figured it would be impossible to sustain this level of fun, funky weirdness for the duration of the show.
But we were wrong, spectacularly so, and I've seldom been gladder for anything. In Body's opening scene, Alice is playing a girl named Mary, who is the younger sister of a lesbian P.I. by the name of Lili, played by Erynn Dalton. Lili may be the show's real protagonist, though it's hard to tell. There is something Freudian happening with the sisters: Both seem intent on rescuing their mother from something, though you'd have a hard time finding a woman less in need of rescue than she. The mother, a fabulously dour 50-something named Eleanor, played by Phyllis Spear, is boating in solitude up some primeval canal in the Yucatan. Though they are a world apart, she and her daughters are all engaged in a mysterious battle against what can only be called fate. The random predations of fate take on many forms in Why We Have a Body, but most of them have to do with gender. This is why Mary desperately wants to be Joan of Arc and why Lili grouses, "When I was growing up, they taught you very young to tell them right away if you were a boy or if you were a girl... Even before you were born, they ask this question over and over, and from in there, you can't imagine what the problem is."
I can see how this might sound dry and P.C. on paper, but it's not. You'll just have to trust me. Why We Have a Body unfolds in quick little snippets of scenes that bounce from lofty abstraction to bare-bones realism without a single awkward transition, and the content alternates between ROFLMAO-ing funniness and profundity. Real profundity, I mean, which is a rare thing in theater.
Every play contains moments that are supposed to "make you think," but Why We Have a Body actually does it. There are meditations on the burdens of developing an identity and thereby becoming "specific"; serious investigations into the nature of erotophobia; and one of the most enlightening explications of the coming-out experience you'll ever see on a stage. That's when Renee, Lili's paleontologist almost-girlfriend, goes into the supermarket and realizes: "All I could see were women!" What follows is a monologue that is, if you'll pardon the overused word, brilliant, in a long succession of similarly brilliant monologues so vivifying that they leave you feeling like you've been soul-fucked by an angelic alien porn star.
The funny bits are as funny as the profound bits are profound. Most of this has to do Aranaga, whose characterization alone is worth far more than whatever puny prices Sol charges for admission. She comes on like Wednesday Adams in the middle of a Prozac overdose, and everything she says is both deadpan and somehow surprised, like she's amazed to find words coming out of her mouth. Toward the end of the first act, she meets her sister for drinks in an airport bar. Lili asks why Mary chose the airport, and Mary replies: "It's my favorite bar. The mix of terror and boredom. It's what drinking's all about!" She looks a little shocked as she says it, like she's stumbled upon some truism that had never occurred to her before, and we laugh because, by God, it is true, and it hasn't ever occurred to us either. This is a not-quite-a-joke that is also a joke, and it's the kind of humor that Claire Chafee primarily deals in. Chafee likes to wink while she illuminates.
Why We Have a Body is the first play I've seen by Chafee, and if this is a representative selection from her (as yet modest) body of work, I have absolutely no qualms in calling her one of the country's most exciting, deepest, and warmest living playwrights. And it's hard to imagine any place better-suited to Chafee's aesthetic than Sol Theatre's funkified digs, with its psychedelic sun murals and pot-smoking Mona Lisa in the lobby. On the night I attended, as Why We Have a Body progressed from Mary's awkward stickup to the women's profound musings on history, femininity, love, motherhood, and meaning, the dedicated Solsters in attendance seemed unable to credit what they were seeing. They looked stunned, blasted back in their seats, hands gripping their kneecaps like they were in danger of losing their legs.
At the beginning, there was no applause and barely any laughter. If I had to guess, I'd say the audience was shocked by its dumb luck; it worried that making any noise at all might break the play's strange glamour. But we came unstuck in dribs and drabs, and by intermission, the theater sounded more like a tent revival than a playhouse. The laughter from the last not-quite-a-joke hadn't yet died before a new one prompted more. Spontaneous applause exploded between scenes, during scenes, and sometimes with no prompting from the stage. From where I sat, the applause sounded like: More! More! More!