“Set fire to the library shelves!” declared the Futurist Manifesto of 1909, written when Europe was nearing World War I, a time when modernists were toppling artistic traditions and philosophers were questioning the foundations of consciousness. It was a glorious time to be an intellectual type—that is, unless you were a girl.
This is the premise of Everything that is the Case for Two Young Women on the Eve of the Great War Among Other Elegant Lies—a new play, written and directed by Frank Boudreaux, that’s titled like a philosophical proof, but ends up proving a lot less than the hundred-year-old ideas that inspired it. Now running at the Incubator, …Other Elegant Lies follows two smarty-pants Oxbridge women: Maddie (Megan Emery Gaffney) and Lena (Winslow Corbett), rebels from the English and Russian aristocracies respectively.
Upon meeting, the girls discover shared obsessions with the philosophies of Russell and Wittgenstein—and with spectacular destruction: The Oxford library is men-only, so our heroines take a page from the Futurist book and blow up the building. Then they abscond to the forest to found an alternative academy (enrollment: two), which involves equal parts calisthenics, philosophical meanderings, and writing defiant letters to their dads. (Think Downton Abbey meets Dada—in the woods.)
…Other Elegant Lies has some striking sequences and a few genuinely affecting moments—like when the girls hike up their clothing, revealing sticks of dynamite among their frilly underthings, then smile with suffragette satisfaction. Scenes from their “Oxbridge Forest Gymnasium School” include a pair of beautifully strange, mechanical dances, performed to bouncy music and strobe-lights, which hint elegantly at the ways the machine age was changing people’s ideas about the body. And of course, it’s never a bad thing to be reminded that many of the greatest modernists were even greater misogynists.
But although—in keeping with its modernist subject matter—the piece is staged in impressionistic fragments, it tells a fairly predictable story of rebellion, self-discovery, and return to the real world. Boudreaux has clearly done reams of research, but this surfaces less often as inventive theatrical form than as jarringly info-heavy dialogue (sample quip: “Did you know Ravel’s ‘Solo for Left Hand’ was written for Paul Wittgenstein?”). And the show’s prologue—in which actors dressed as tweedy, mustachioed Oxford men herd us into the theater while barking about free will and shouting “INDEED!” at irregular intervals—is more irritating than illuminating. (Realizing, afterwards, that this is meant to illustrate the obnoxiousness of the male elite made it only slightly more theatrically palatable.) For a play about radical feminists and revolutionary art, …Other Elegant Lies isn’t so much shocking as shockingly conventional.