The Secretaries is one of the most uproarious plays staged in Portland in recent memory. The gloriously demented plot covers sex, dieting, lumberjacks, saws and serial killers. But even squeamish playgoers will appreciate the play's feminist themes and satirical nuances.
Directed by Dawn Monique Williams and written by the playwriting team Five Lesbian Brothers—Maureen Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibbell, Peg Healey and Lisa Kron—The Secretaries follows the misadventures of Patty Johnson (Claire Rigsby).
In 1994, Patty is the newest secretary at a lumber mill in the fictitious town of Big Bone, Ore. Patty quickly bonds with her fellow secretaries—the psychotic Ashley (Kelly Godell), the melodramatic Dawn (Jamie M. Rea), the ethereal Peaches (Jen Rowe) and the group's imperious ringleader, Susan (Andrea White).
There's just one problem: The secretaries might be serial killers who slaughter a lumberjack each month and are eager to lure Patty into their bloodthirsty cult.
A plethora of feminist commentary is packed into the play's narrative. While the gruesome rituals of vengeance the secretaries perform on men offer them a sense empowerment, it is fleeting at best. Not only are they devotees of Susan's religion—which is centered on losing weight by living entirely on SlimFast shakes—but they body shame and physically abuse one another. While the play's characters outwardly project strength, the misogyny in Big Bone is so ingrained and institutionalized that they can never fully escape it.
At the same time, the production demands not to be taken too seriously. "This is not a moral tale or complex allegory," the secretaries chant in unison during the final act. The Five Lesbian Brothers' mockery of sexism is at once illuminating and hysterical—and reverberates with transgressive glee, largely thanks to Williams' sensational cast.
Whether it's Patty's hilariously straight-faced declaration of "I'm no feminist. I can take a compliment," or Peaches' dramatic decision to stop eating solid foods, the performers deliver each line with "no one told me this was comedy" sincerity. Even truly disturbing scenes—like a climax that plays like a spoof of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—spur nonstop laughter.
Some audiences might be uncomfortable with the play's dark sense of humor, especially during a scene depicting workplace sexual harassment. But that's part of the power of The Secretaries. The Five Lesbian Brothers, Williams and her cast have taken the horror of misogyny and used it to create satirical entertainment. That's not incendiary. That's an appropriate revenge.
SEE IT: The Secretaries is at Profile Theatre, Alder Stage, 1515 SW Morrison St., profiletheatre.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, through July 1. $20-$36.