For 16 years, the Five Lesbian Brothers (Maureen Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibbell, Peg Healey, and Lisa Kron) have
been making the world unsafe for queer stereotypes and internalized sexism through tragicomic stage extravaganzas like The Secretaries and Brave Smiles.
Now, after a six-year hiatus from writing and performing as an ensemble, they’re back at New York Theatre Workshop with a modern-day lesbian take on the Western world’s seminal tragedy. Instead of ancient Thebes and the seer Tiresias,
Oedipus at Palm Springs features a swank womyn-only resort, run by a blind caretaker with a penchant for giving prophetic key readings to unsuspecting guests. Pool orgies and painful revelations ensue.
During previews, the Brothers sat down to talk about the play, the process, and getting naked onstage.
Why update a Greek tragedy with bourgie California lesbians? Don’t we already have The L Word?
Healey: No, we don’t have The L Word, so shut up! Originally the play was called
Oedipussy and set in a Greek diner. But things took a big turn when we went to Palm Springs [to write the play]; we just soaked up that culture, which is deeply hedonistic. Cocktail hour runs from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. You’re always naked because it’s sunny and you have privacy. We were pretty much naked the whole time we were writing.
Dibbell: The Secretaries went to the furthest extremes of femininity, which was almost like a foreign species to us. I feel that way about bourgeois lesbians: “I don’t understand you, and I want to. You’re in my tribe but you’re so different from me.”
Healey: Oedipus deals with royalty, so we chose lesbians who make money, can move in the mainstream. We also made Jocasta the central character instead of Oedipus—she’s the one who makes the central choice. The play is so much about female identity: Who are you as a sexual person, as a mother? How do those categories divide and separate you?
Sophocles’ Oedipus is still the main sexual myth of our culture; Freud saw Oedipus’s self-blinding as a metaphor for castration. You’ve moved the center of the play from the penis to the breast—one of the central plot points revolves around a nipple.
Angelos: As lesbians, in our sexual practice, we are “breastular.” And that’s something we share with straight men. I mean, is there some special power that straight men get for going back to the breast? If so, yeah, we’re on board with that! Breasts are weird. We see them everywhere–—
Healey: They’re epic.
Angelos: —yet they remain silently mysterious and powerful. We’re all drawn to them.
One of the unusual aspects of this play is the way female bodies and sexuality are presented apart from any male point of view.
Kron: A lot of people don’t figure out which character is the mother until very late in the action. It’s because lesbian sexuality isn’t enculturated. It’s not read. A “butch” gets read as a man, although of course lesbians don’t see a butch that way. For me, the attractiveness of a butch is her androgyny, the element of womanliness that’s part of her. So the story isn’t “about” lesbians, but the effect it has on the audience is. That’s what it challenges in them, their presuppositions about lesbians.
Davy: Because of The L Word, people think they know, but . . .
You’ve managed to reconceive the play without changing the core story: What someone doesn’t know, or won’t see, comes back to haunt them.
Kron: We all walk around with unexamined things, with a certain level of denial. Everyone has an emotional blind spot. If that denial somehow gets triggered, the results can be very destructive. Things go along [at] a certain level, the known world is delineated, and then suddenly the bottom drops out. And that’s the universality of the play: It isn’t that the Jocasta character is exceptional; it’s that she’s
For tickets call, 212.239.6200.