Bring on the Counter-Narratives

Fingersmith, at A.R.T. (Photo: A.R.T.)

Counter-narratives become much needed palliatives when the storyline of daily life becomes poisonous. Watching the transition to a new regime of power in Washington is like a flashback to the most addled aspects of the 1950’s. As Thomas Friedman recently wrote in the New York Times, “There is actually something ‘prehistoric’ about the cabinet Trump is putting together. It is totally dominated by people who have spent their adult lives drilling for, or advocating for, fossil fuels — oil, gas and coal.”

Many forms of expression can provide counter-narrative relief. One of the best is theater. For example Phyllida Lloyd, the applauded English director of stage and film, has taken Shakespeare into new territory by mounting three of the plays with an all female cast set in a women’s prison. Women, playing men, are prisoners performing Shakespeare behind bars. That layered complexity transforms our view of Julius Caesar, Henry IV and Prospero in The Tempest. (BTW The Tempest is coming to Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse from January 13 through February 19.)

Another immersive counter-narrative theatrical production is on stage now in Boston/Cambridge: Fingersmith, at the American Repertory Theater. Based on the intriguing 2002 novel by Sarah Waters, the play is a masterful, watchmaker-perfect production that will sweep you out of the current shared reality for two hours and forty minutes. The story has both male and female characters, but it is, at its essence, a woman-centric tale. The men in this Dickensian setting are either servile operatives or menacing obstacles around which a powerful pack of self-preserving females each plot a survival route out of difficult lives. Full of surprises, twists and turns, the plot is as engaging as the characters are complex.

In the words of the playwright Alexa Junge:

Sarah Water’s novel is a valentine to the gothic thriller, domestic drama, and Victorian sensation novel…In centering the story around three active, assertive women, the novel flies in the face of traditional portrayals of what was considered appropriately “feminine” at the time. The result is that in addition to creating a sexy and delicious yarn, Waters has imaginatively created a history (and fiction) that never existed by exposing the blind spots of history and bringing marginalized women to the light.

As so many of us are marginalized in this latest power grab, keeping these other storylines active is more important than ever. This matters.

Fingersmith runs through January 8.