What — Who — Is a Woman? “Cat Fight”

Half of the human world struggles with being a woman.

Right now, in North Hollywood, 14 gifted and brave young women are publicly laying open that struggle.  Taking their own lives  as text, using their own bodies and voices to share it.

If you are a woman, or think you might be — if you are human, or hope you might be — you won’t want to miss what they’re doing.
They’re onstage through the end of July.

The women of "Cat Fight"

The women of “Cat Fight”

The 14 women have created a theatrical experience called (with an aggressive irony) Cat Fight.  It’s the sort of title men click on as they unzip, hoping to see battling women unwittingly bare their bodies.

In Cat Fight, the women bare their souls (as well as their bodies).  And never by accident, not for a second.  It’s what they mean to do, the work they’ve come for.  And they do it with each other. Together, they focus every nerve, every muscle, every breath, every thought on wrestling with the question at the heart of their lives — Who is a woman?

Of course, you don’t answer a question like that.  It’s way too big, too complex.  It shows up differently in every life, and keeps changing within each woman’s life.  It never stands still.  So you explore it, you grapple with it, you try to respond to it … and your response shows up in your body, your clothes, your words, your thoughts, your actions, your relationships, your solitude.

Cat Fight begins in the world its title evokes — where a woman is an object of desire, of ownership, who wins her narrow “place” with the wily promise of sex.  Or has it ripped from her by force.

In the pre-show, four women follow endless, silent rituals.  One applies makeup, unsatisfied with what her mirror shows; one steps on and off a scale, dismayed; one laces another’s chokingly tight corset, never done.

The show then starts with Pet Me, Poppa (a strip-tease number from the 1955 film Guys and Dolls), pranced by five women in black-cat costumes.  Then three women try, in turn, to cross the stage while “cat calls” are hurled at them.  Then a sole woman stumbles across in disheveled evening dress, looking over her shoulder in silent anguish.

Cat Fight progresses like a strip show, peeling away layer after layer of what we see as “woman.”  It starts with what we accept as normal — including what we put up with, and what we agree not to see, as well as what we affirm.  Steadily, it works deeper and deeper toward  what we fear, what we do not understand, what we must come to terms with.

Along the way, Cat Fight moves in feline, subtle rhythms.   In the opening numbers, the women devolve from dancing to walking to stumbling.  Later, one woman (Natalie Hyde) does a mock-sexual routine around the base of a 12-foot metal pole, while others leer and toss money.  Then a second woman (Iris Smoot) performs a true pole dance — alone, gymnastically exploring its full height — while we gasp to see what a human being can do.

Cat Fight is always embodied, and the bodies are almost always in motion.  But at some moments, the spoken word takes center stage.

In one, a woman (Mariana Leite) excitedly shares the lyric joys and sharp terrors of childbirth.  In another, three women (Alycia Lourim, Crystal Salas, and Deneen Melody) interweave stunned meditations on loss — one recovering from an abortion, one from a miscarriage, one from losing her fertility to tumor surgery.

In yet another, a woman (Jonica Patella) holds us suspended with her in mid-passage across genders.  And one spoken piece occurs entirely — and tellingly — in the dark.

Again and again, Cat Fight pounces, surprising us, catching us.  Again and again, it makes us feel complex human matters from inside.  Only rarely does it do less.  (Once, eight women voiced feelings and thoughts about whether to mate or live single, shifting too rapidly to go deep — and so often that I got lost.)

Cat Fight is incredibly ambitious.  Giving voice — and body — to all that it means to be a woman is impossible.

So the artists, guided by director Vanessa Cate, wisely work from their own experiences. They don’t try to represent women in other cultures — nor in the latter half of life, none of them being over40.  (They do reach out to other artists once or twice, as in borrowing the arresting words of Vanessa Gray.)

Cate shapes the work to the ZJU Theatre’s black-lined jewel box.  And she adapts Zombie Joe’s distinctive storytelling technique — brief, non-sequential scenes often separated by blackouts — to stalk swiftly among myriad aspects of female experience.

The result is wide, deep, complex and richly varied.  Cat Fight draws us into a fast-moving, powerfully affecting experience that feels, at its end, amazingly comprehensive.

When theatre works — really works, doing what only theatre can do — it becomes difficult to describe.  Because it reaches beyond words, into depths of body and feeling as far below language as the boiling magma lies beneath the geologic skin of Earth.

Cat Fight works, as only theatre can.  It reaches into its subject, and into us, deeply.  And it delivers so much of womanhood’s “infinite variety” that once you’ve seen it — whatever your sex or gender — I doubt you’ll ever see a woman, or be in the company of one, or encounter yourself in the privacy of your mirror, in the same way again.

Cat Fight: An Exploration of the Feminine, developed by True Focus Theater, directed by Vanessa Cate.
Choreographed by Natalie Hyde and Iris Smoot, vocal arrangement and direction by Annalee Scott and Angie Hoover.

At Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd. Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 7:00, through July 27.

Tickets:  <catfight.brownpapertickets.com> or (805) 791-1503.

Disclaimer:  The director and several other artists involved in Cat Fight are friends, some of long standing, with whom I have worked closely.  But frankly, this lifts the bar, because I know what they’re capable of (or thought I did).

An Oft-Told Tale Reborn: “Star-Cross’d”

The Fringe is the place for new companies with new ideas.
But Romeo & Juliet is hardly new, having been onstage for more than 400 years.

Nor is dancing it.  Tchaikovsky’s brief tone poem has been reshaped into countless ballets since 1870.  Prokofiev’s full-length score has been staged by at least 10 major choreographers in the 80 years since he wrote it.  Modern dance companies around the globe have set their own versions to the music of both.

And yet.  And yet.  Star-Cross’dRomeo & Juliet told in dance — is something new.


In a black loft box at The Complex, 14 incredibly energetic young artists from Long Beach enact the oft-told tale, swiftly and powerfully.  They’re actors, some with dance backgrounds, and they move to a score of contemporary pop songs, deftly chosen (from Florence & the Machine’s oeuvre by Jessica Westerfield) for musical mood more than lyrics — though the words are often tellingly apt.

In simple, colorful costumes (by Chelsea Anne and Greg Cesena) that clarify their characters, the actors stride, whirl, embrace, run and leap about on an empty stage,  bringing out boxes and simple props as needed.   They also fight and die (in clear, emotionally effective fight choreography by Mark Anthony Vallejo, who also dances the street fighter Tybalt).

Only a few lines of the prologue, and even fewer from the closing  speech, are spoken.  The rest (as cousin Hamlet said) is silence.  And vigorous, engaging movement to the music — in the music, really.

The highest praise for this inventive, playful yet fully serious (and deeply moving) work of art goes to choreographer Lizzy Ferdinandi, and her co-director Jessie Gaupel. They have infused this age-old work with the abundant, athletic energy of youth — which is what made it tick in the first place.

A huge part of their achievement lies in bringing “actors who move” to such a consistently high level of physical story-telling.  My companion, a dancer and choreographer, was brought to tears not only by the story (which we’ve both known for longer than the dancers have been alive) but by the astonishing level of the work.

Nearly all of us know this tale, of course.  But another friend who took young children said they grasped the whole story from the dance alone, eagerly retelling it for days after.  That’s another huge part of this troupe’s achievement — making this play, famed for its poetry, completely clear and powerfully moving with virtually no words at all.

Particular note must be made of Jocelyn Sanchez, whose intensity and honesty made every emotion of Juliet’s harrowing ride through heaven and hell a felt reality.  No ballerina I’ve seen in 50 years has her genuine, real-world beauty and character; and only the best of them can match her for dancing.  Also noteworthy are Victor Davila’s tirelessly fresh, always emotionally present Romeo, the leonine power of Christopher Dearden as Mercutio, and Carolina Montenegro’s mercurial Balthazar.

Finally, a note or two about skillful minimalism.  Often, Ferdinandi and Gaupel use the dancers themselves for stage furniture, both static and cleverly moving.  One especially creative transformation, toward the end, was throat-catching because it expressed exactly what was happening to the characters.

And when you go — as you must — watch for Juliet’s mirror scene.  Rarely will you see the words and ideas of a scene alchemically changed into dance with such shockingly exact imaginative power.

I said you must go.  The Fringe has ended, but lucky you — this show is invited back for a Producers’ Encore.  It happens Sunday, July 15.  You only think you know the story of Juliet and her Romeo.

Star-Cross’d, adapted (from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet) and directed by by Lizzie Ferdinandi and Jessie Gaupel.
Presented by The Half-Shadow Players, at The Complex Theatre, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd.

Encore showing:  Sunday July 15 at 9:30 pm.

Tickets:  <www.hff14.org/projects/1748>