Theater archives

Big Dance Theater’s Era-Toggling “17c” Tackles Samuel Pepys and Gender Imbalance


Power and misogyny have been in cahoots for a long time — since way before #metoo, way before Harvey Weinstein. In fact, as Annie-B Parson and Big Dance Theater point out in 17c, a new dance-theater piece now at BAM, this relationship was already going strong at the dawn of modernity. Riffing on the salacious diaries of Samuel Pepys, seventeenth-century London’s most notable and obsessive self-chronicler, 17c is a light concoction with the capacity to make your stomach churn.

Conceived by Parson and co-directed by Parson and Paul Lazar, 17c parses the parallels between early modern cultures of fame and self-revelation and our own social media–laden landscape. The ensemble piece, featuring a cast of company regulars, is trademark Big Dance Theater: a textual and choreographic mashup that gently surfs among sources. The graceful geometries of court dance mingle with recitations from Pepys’s recollections; from internet comments posted on an online edition of the diary; and from fragments of gender theory by Judith Butler and Jill Johnston. There are corsets, periwigs, and peppy pink projections. There’s even some theater: snippets from The Convent of Pleasure, by the seventeenth-century playwright Margaret Cavendish, and whiffs of other dramatists, from Ionesco to Euripides.

In both the seventeenth century and the twenty-first, 17c suggests, people were compelled to obsessively self-document and compulsively share. In both as well, social structures shore up inequalities over who gets to take pleasure in making their private lives public — and whose privacy ends up violated, like it or not. In his diary, Pepys described bodily functions frankly (you might learn a new term for “erection”) and reported quotidian details with interest. He also catalogued endless infidelities, usually with women less powerful than he like his wife’s maid, with whom he maintained a feverish and long-running affair. (Lazar, never less than captivating onstage, makes an excellent Pepys, contemplating these transgressions with fascination.)

What did Pepys’s wife, Bess, think about it all? Oh, she was kinda mad. According to Pepys, that is; as Parson notes, Pepys burned Bess’s writings, so we don’t know her side of the story. Nor those of the many other women Pepys assaulted. (If “assaulted” sounds harsh, consider his description of one encounter: “Alone with her and against her struggles, I did what I wanted, though not to my satisfaction.”) In places, 17c seems to imply that the problem lies in our whole conception of gender and the power differential it creates — and that the answer requires the founding of a radically different society, maybe an all-female one. Cavendish’s play briefly stages such a fantasy, and lesbian separatist Johnston suggested the same.

This dimension of the piece could use expansion. Though 17c’s run at BAM caps a regional tour, the piece feels unfinished. It’s delightfully frothy, but capable of more depth, too often commenting on the issues at stake rather than embodying them. The dance sections come off as interludes rather than imperatives — studies for something stronger — and you might find yourself longing for more scenes and less insistent monologue. But then, it’s no accident that 17c is heavy on soliloquy and light on dialogue and alternate voices. Big Dance Theater didn’t erase those voices: Samuel Pepys and his contemporaries did, and they are missing still.

BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
Through November 18