Writing for CurtainUp
|A CurtainUp Review
Gum by Elyse Sommer
What in the world could the pleasurable chewy, juicyness of gum have to do with the horrendous practice of female genital mutilation? Could there be something in a stick of this innocent stuff to really make an innocent young woman throw away her carefully guarded virtue?
According to a story that gained widespread circulation gum was the cause for an outburst of sexual adventures by a group of college girls in a provincial Egyptian town. According to those with conspiratorial inclinations, Israelis had laced gum chewed by the girls' out-of-control hormones with aphrodisiacs. These claims were angrily denounced in Israel and eventually disputed by the Egyptian Ministry of Health. But for playwright Karen Hartman this tempest over the supposedly potent gum served as the springboard and somewhat self-conscious metaphor for a play about two sisters in an unnamed country where genital mutilation continues as a means to control female sexuality.
Unlike The Vagina Monologues, (our review) in which Eve Ensler uses humor to empower women everywhere to be proud rather than ashamed about everything "down there" Gum takes itself much more seriously and focuses on a single story. That story centers on two young sisters living in a walled-in world in an unnamed Islamic country. Lina (Angel Desai), the younger sister, satisfies her longing for unknown pleasures beyond the walled garden of the family's wealthy home with tapes and chewing gum sent from an American relative. For Rahmi (Daphne Rubin-Vega), the older sister, chewing gum is not the only means of scaling the wall of their tight little world. That's why when a poor young man she met in the market comes calling, her never-seen wealthy father agrees to the marriage.
Rubin-Vega and Desai depict the sisters and their love for each other with great sensitivity. Desai is particularly moving. The supporting players, are fine, as is the staging. Myung Hee Cho has created a pristinely beautiful walled garden which is evocatively lit by Frances Aronson. Sound designer Obadiah Eaves effectively sets the tone for each scene, with the chanting of muslim prayer framing beginning and end. There are also several songs by Kim D. Sherman, but don't expect any echoes of Ms. Rubin-Vega's Mimi in Rent. Director Loretta Greco has created some lovely images -- as when the sisters step out of the hot tub at the center of the stage and into one large towel.
What makes Gum ultimately unsatisfactory is that it seems to propagate an amalgam of media images of women coming of age in cultures where virginity is prized above all else, even by men like Inayat (Firdous Bamji) who want wives who are sexual but not sexually free. The characters and plot are too simplistic and predictable to release the play from the genre of docu-drama. Yet, taken as a docu-drama it lacks authenticity and the ending is too atypical to make it a representational story. The language is often too precious in its reach for poetry.
In summary, Gum has a subject that's worth exploring. Too bad that the bubble of Ms. Hartman's brand of gum collapses before that subject can evolve into a more muscular drama.