Stepford wives from 1950s America get a macabre, surreal twist in this bloody good show.
There are times we find ourselves wondering when exactly the seeds of feminism were sown. In 1940s America, as men were shipped off to become soldiers during the war, the running of the country was left to women, as wives stepped foot into factories and worked for the first time. And perhaps as the 1950s dawned and men returned to the workforce, something clicked within women coming home to become perfect domestic goddesses, and they realized that they had the potential and desire to be so much more.
Israeli director/choreographer Emanuella Amichai explores precisely that concept in her award-winning dance/movement piece The Neighbor’s Grief Is Greener, as performers Merav Dagan, Ayala Bresler Nardi, Meirav Elchadef and Julie Nesher take on the role of dissatisfied housewives expressing their deepest, darkest fantasies in a surreal, suburban kitchen. Channeling some of the most iconic women from the 50s, from Lucille Ball to Marilyn Monroe, these women offer a kaleidoscope of the female condition experienced in the era, touching on issues as simple as unfulfilled sporting ambitions to how sexual objectification was as pertinent then as it still is today. Meanwhile, Jeremie Elfassy takes on the role of the hapless husband, possibly even a murderous one.
The Neighbor’s Grief is the kind of work that leaves audiences with uncomfortable laughter, its visceral imagery often toeing the line between the beautifully macabre and physical comedy, and sometimes, a strange combination of the two. There is an underlying unhappiness and dissatisfaction within each of these women, and their inability to cope with it expresses is externalised when the simplest of household chores become perverted by their grief – a cake mixture becomes a recipe for blood, gratuitously spilled all over the pristine white floor during the opening scenes, while waiting for her husband to return home becomes an opportunity for one of the wives to perform a sultry striptease. There is a force with which eggs are audibly cracked (over their husband’s heads no less) that exemplifies the innate violence that these women are saddled with, expressing it in the mundane everyday routines. Later on, another wife lies on the floor convulsing, her desperate husband somehow pulling out her guts, in an attempt to stop it, paralleling an earlier scene where a chicken was similarly gutted and prepared for the roast, perhaps a commentary on how women are essentially the equivalent of meat, waiting to be stuffed and consumed by men.
Each movement in the performance is impeccably choreographed, as the women lip sync to old clips from I Love Lucy, an old Marilyn Monroe interview and classic songs from the 50s, while even Jeremie Elfassy gets his chance to shine when he embodies Frank Sinatra (in a stirring lip sync of ‘It was a very good year’) towards the end of the show. Erez Shwertzbaum’s lighting design is spot on, and the way so precise that he creates the impression of a half open door by playing with light alone, assisting in unveiling the darkness hidden beneath this veneer of perfection. Elements of clowning and farce are present throughout, from an inspired synchronized swimming sequence to mindless conversations that devolve into literal ‘blahblahblahs’, and are simultaneously laugh out loud, yet deeply disturbing as we are left to consider the horror of feeling trapped both inside and out.
Few shows have the ability to surprise us from start to end, but The Neighbor’s Grief Is Greener constantly kept us on our toes, adroitly transporting us from hilarious visual gag sequence to noir crime scene in the blink of an eye. Ultimately, perhaps the most surprising and powerful thing about the performance is its unexpectedly tender final message of hope, leaving us breathless with its optimism and touched by its warmth. As disparate as men and women may seem, there are times where all we really need to bridge the gap is to reach out, see each other clearly in the light, and connect emotionally once again. The Neighbor’s Grief is an immensely clever take on the breakdown of a marriage and the frustration of being a woman in a patriarchal society, and all we can really say is, it’s a bloody good show.
Photo Credit: Gadi Dagon and Nadia Poilez
Performance attended 24/1/18