Theater archives

California Scheming


While Olympia Greene, the lightweight champion of the world, barks insults after knocking out a male competitor, her husband Rudolph sits meekly in the corner sewing. Ever since Mother Hubbard’s revolutionary takeover of California, men have become second-class citizens. Most have been sent away to desert camps that claim to have ESPN and nonstop recreational sports–though curiously no one’s made it back to vouch for the accommodations.

The prospect of an all-female utopia is toyed with in Ishmael Reed’s satiric cartoon Mother Hubbard, which adds another chapter to the fantasy literature about matriarchal domination. It’s no surprise that men treat the subject dramatically differently than women do. In her noted study of gender wars in science fiction, novelist and critic Joanna Russ observes that while women authors tend to be explicit about “politics, demystifying about biology, emphatic about the need for female bonding, concerned with children, and relatively peaceful,” male authors invariably focus on the phallus as the “Sacred Object,” the secret weapon that not only guarantees but justifies men’s inevitable victory in the battle of the sexes.

The abuses of power by Mother Hubbard and her guerrilla Hubbardites–excesses that include murder, kidnapping, and a complete ban on sexual relations–are apparently typical of the male version of this genre. So too is the presence of supernatural creatures such as King Rabbit and Bobbie Rat, who rescue Rudolph from his humiliating drudgery and share with him the million-dollar secret of turning rabbit into mink. (The Hubbardites may have traded their dresses for army fatigues, but a fur coat still possesses an irresistible allure.) The chatty hare and rodent (played by actors in comic masks) also fill Rudolph in on the lie of Mother Hubbard’s virginity, a piece of information that turns the newly prosperous young man into public enemy number one.

As one would expect from the author of The Terrible Twos and Flight to Canada, Reed is largely in sympathy with the radical fervor of the militarized women. A product of the Black Power movement in the late ’60s, he knows better than most how conditions of entrenched poverty and inequality can give rise to violent struggle. Topical references to recent Republican-led propositions cutting benefits to women, children, and illegal aliens set the political context for what occurs. Still, it’s hard not to wince at boxer Olympia’s ultimate recognition of her docile womanly needs (captured in the song “A Good Sweet Man”) or the long repressed Hubbardites’ celebration of their newfound freedom to go out on the town and snare some Sacred Objects of their own.

Theatrically, Mother Hubbard‘s cupboard is only slightly more bountiful than its politics. The dialogue is passably entertaining–a decent cabaret piece for a college troupe, which may betray the play’s origins at U.C. Berkeley, where Reed has taught for the last 30 years. Director Rome Neal’s production features a cast of genial performers whose vocal and acting ability vary widely in professional skill. Frances McAlpine Sharp is humorously formidable as the warmongering Mother Hubbard, while Elliott Williams brings a goofy gentleness to the put-upon Rudolph. Ronald L. McIntyre’s supermarket background music isn’t an adequate match for Reed’s wackily earnest lyrics, but then not even the funkiest score could make up for the limited vision of this often sweet, though decidedly gender-biased parable.