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1960s Housewives Desperate, Not BLISSful in Miami University Production

Review by Ken Stern of BLISS (or, Emily Post is Dead!): Miami University

The gods, and their mythologies, do live forever, on stage, in texts, and the creative imagination of playwright Jami Brandli, whose BLISS (or, Emily Post is Dead!) makes its “Premiere Production” at Miami University’s Studio 88 Theatre this week through February 26th. Brandli’s play curses Apollo to live forever, and has Cassandra reliving Apollo’s curse on her BLISS (or, Emily Post is Dead!), to prophesize the future, but not to be believed (“don’t bring that wooden horse inside the gates”).

In this powerful, thought provoking, entertaining, and well done production, Apollo and Cassandra are joined by Clementine, channeling Clytemnestra (wife of Agamemnon from the Trojan wars). Maddy (Medea) and Antonia (Antigone) live in the same North Orange, New Jersey neighborhood. Brandli, not Greek storytellers, brings these unrelated protagonists into this new telling, set in 1960. The women are front and center, but Clementine’s and Maddy’s lives revolve around their absent husbands, not Greek heroes but now with 20th century back stories in business or law. Antonia’s guardian uncle is her nemesis, her (Oedipal) parents dead.

And Emily Post? First and last, from the opening scene a presence and touchstone, written to forlornly by these suburban women. They never get an answer, but her dictates guide their lives. And then she dies.

Taylor Hayes’s Maddy is center stage most often. Hers is a powerful, assertive, frenetic, frustrated, and anxious presence, a storm beneath the calm, most notably as Act II opens. Wailing in classic Greek tragedy fashion, the lights come up on Maddy clasping a newspaper, shocked to read that Emily Post is dead. The three women continue reading their appeals to Emily Post, Clemmie and Antonia on the wings. Maddy scratches and scratches her arms, showing increased nervousness and a brittleness behind her all-is-well exterior.

Maddy, who found pink panties not her own in Jason’s pants pocket at the close of Act I, diverts herself initially with her concern for Antonia, who by going to the. high school dance with a black student, has breached etiquette. In Maddy’s Emily Post structured world, everything and everyone has a place, and a black boy with a white girl is not respectable. Playwright Brandli’s feminist play addresses race with equal gravity.

Jada Harris offers a burdened, grim, resolved, independent, and assertive Cassandra. Her ability to foretell the future, without being believed and with her living through the consequences, weighs her down. She looks toward the sky, tense, worried, a fearful, faraway look in her eyes. There is no joy in her: she does not know how to tell a joke or be a part of one.

The play’s twist is that this Cassandra, in this setting, is black. Apollo seeks to marginalize her, telling her “You’re a woman, which means you’re weak. You’re black in modern society, which means you’re powerless.” But Cassandra seeks to break her curse, and save her fellow women characters from their fates by coaching them to choose their own path and break free from the plot of their story. Will they make an independent decision, turning away from the killing in the original myths?

Apollo comes to Cassandra out of mists, always at night as she is waiting for the bus. Adam Joesten’s Apollo is vain, preening, a god who is subtly insecure. One of the delights of the play is the tension of past established values in changing times, here a pagan god fading into insignificance, his philosophy of an ordered world with actions fated and settled by godly dictate, overtaken by agency and the possibility of choice.

Cassandra is most frightened of, and trying to assist, Clementine (Theresa Liebhart). Now the wife of an often absent corporate executive, Clementine carries the weight of knowing husband Arthur murdered their baby Iris, born with phocomelia: no arms or legs. Liebhart’s portrayal is nuanced, ranging from the good housewife to the plotting potential divorcee, to the furious, ready-to-murder her husband.

Emily Post is one outlet for Clemmie’s worries. Pills—amphetamines, uppers—another background character, play a more prominent role. Whether called green demon or a housewife’s best friend, Clementine has them, and supplies them to Maddy, Antonia, and even offers one to Cassandra.

This rich historical texture gets more complex when Maddy finds out that Gil, Antonia’s dance date, is black. Antonia (Rachel Brandenburg), a mousy high schooler, dressed in a sweater, knee length plaid skirt, and saddle shoes, is without family, parents and brothers dead, and is being trained in Emily Post manners by Maddy. Antonia, the youngest, is most interested in changing, and able to, as she grows into a world complicated by jazz music and drugstore sit-ins. Brandenburg grows into maturity, becoming bolder, literally cutting the rope her uncle has tied her up with, and fleeing with Gil to participate in a New Orleans sit-in.

The rumbling of the coming future is heard above, part of Anthony Thompson’s sound design. Less subtle is Cassandra’s response to Antonia’s innocent ask: What do you see in the year, oh . . .2016?” Trance-like, Cassandra responds: “Bullets fly. Families shatter. Communities erupt. The body count grows while HATE continues to feed the ancient beasts: racism, sexism, classicism and terrorism of all forms and faces. And the LIES. The lies the liars tell to keep the old guard in place as a demagogue rises to power.”

This review goes into background detail because the plot is so richly woven with allusions and references to the protagonists’ origin stories. The cast, and the audience, were and can be helped by the 48 page dramaturgical packet researched by students Jenny Henderson and Emma Shibley. Email Henderson at henderjn@miamioh.edu for your pdf file copy.

Guest director Darin Anthony’s past work with Brandli shows: the play proceeds crisply and energetically, with moments of high drama and leavening laughter. Anthony and Jami Brandli are this year’s Cromer/Flory Artists-in-Residence recipients in the University’s Theatre Department.

The production team includes Katie Vandergriff, stage manager and Jessica Cooper, assistant stage manager.