I’m not accustomed to writing reviews that negatively convey a performance. There are two reasons for this. First, I’m not always comfortable voicing my opinion to the internet when it’s divergent from the norm, as I worry about how it will be received. Being a writer, this is the kind of an issue I need to overcome and am thus am daring myself to get over this as soon as possible. Second, I don’t want to keep people from seeing a show – I truly believe that most theater is worth seeing and don’t want to be like newspaper critics who (to steal an idea from a colleague of mine) think know better than the people performing or seeing the show. I’m also hesitant in this particular case, as Calendar Girls was part of an event for the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers. And while I’m very grateful for the event and enjoyed it, I don’t want to keep that from being honest about the show. Because I was very disappointed by Calendar Girls. But before I go on to the critique, let me give you a little bit of background where I’m coming from.
I am a young woman who has had a number of body image issues in her life. I can hardly remember a time before I worried about my weight, worried about how I looked, and received comments on my body. Since at least the age of eight, I’ve dealt with being considered overweight, heard, from doctors to classmates, the word “fat” used negatively, and harbored a dark self-loathing for my own body. I lost weight when I started college and, though I’m now at what most people consider a healthy body weight, I still suffer somewhat from body dysmorphia and have no good conception of what size I really am. I find it easy to support people of others sizes and strongly support body positivity/embracing “fatness” as something that’s not a pejorative, but still struggle to feel good about myself.
This being said, I expected that Calendar Girls – a show that deals with female nudity and undressing onstage – would deal with issues of female body image, body positivity, and embracing female power. While the show did this in some ways, it feel dreadfully short in others. This being said, don’t skip the show on my account – but do take into account the following perspectives.
Most of my issues deal with the script, not the production by Park Square itself. The cast is lovely, dynamic, and clever. But the pace of the show felt a bit slow, especially in the beginning. There were moments where I questioned why certain actions were happening and wondered what the point of certain scenes were. Overall, it felt a bit disjointed. I never fully understood why the WA sold calendars. I never fully understood what the WA was. And I certainly didn’t understand why the way to raise money for a memorial for Annie (Christina Baldwin)’s deceased husband John (John Middleton) was to sell calendars with the WA members nude. If you’re going to pose nude for a calendar to benefit a man (a well-liked deceased man, but still), there needs to be a strong explanation of why.
Part of this is due to how little John is in the play. While the show’s focus is clearly on female relationships, I do wish it had spent a little more time building up John’s character so that we understand why he was so important to the women of Yorkshire and why he is so sorely missed (aside from dying from cancer. Yes, this is tragic, but is a person is more than their disease). The show doesn’t reveal this much, nor does it dig into other issues that women have with their bodies. It is mentioned that some of the ladies, such as Cora (Laurel Armstrong), are reluctant to undress because they don’t look like Chris or Celia (played by Charity Jones and Carolyn Pool, respectively) though Jessie (Linda Kelsey) shows little reservations, though she is the oldest in the group. But it doesn’t divulge further into this and maintains the idea that the calendar viewers who are men are far more interested in these two than the others. Nor does it explain the idea that the women – primarily Ruth (Shanan Custer) – are concerned about undressing because their husbands have never seen them nude. While this line is intended for humor, it never explores this idea that seems to be true for many of the women. How is it you can be married to someone and never see them without clothing? How can photographing female nudity never lead to a deeper discussion of body image? The issues at stake with this are ignored.
The actual nudity in the show does feel fun and empowering, but this effect doesn’t last after the printing of the calendar. While the focus should be on the letters Annie is receiving from women who have lost loved ones to cancer and grateful for the calendar making this issue known, I feel the script spends a lot of time with how men (never present onstage but mentioned) react to seeing the women nude. Perhaps it’s because I’m from a different generation (one that hears about nude selfies being leaked all the time and knows how personal images can be used against women) but I’m never comfortable with the underlying bit of objectification that comes with the production of the calendar. This is not the kind of empowerment I want – women’s liberation of their bodies at the cost of being continually ogled by men. I felt heavily bogged down in this issue by the end – especially with Chris trying to get the women to move into advertising – and I never felt the connection the women between regain its former joviality after this. There’s a quote from Charlotte Perkins Gilman that says, “Women’s economic profit comes through the power of sex-attraction” and I can’t help but feel this idea of using sexuality to sell calendars (though for humanitarian reasons) never loses a uncomfortable edge that takes away from the empowerment that should be happening onstage (Donovan 44).
My biggest issue with this show is the lack of diversity. I know that this takes place in Yorkshire, but as Yorkshire is being created for us, then why not create it so it looks more like our own communities? Yes, it’s based of a true accounts, but I feel like that’s a weak excuse to not include more diversity in terms of race, age, ability, and body size. However, it can’t be overlooked that this show does do something radical. It is rare for women of a certain age to be able to work together on a show in the theater world (as was mentioned in the post-show discussion) and Calendar Girls certainly does this. And while this is marvelous and groundbreaking, it makes me sad at still how far we have to go in terms of representations of women in theater. I admit, I’d be more intrigued by this play if it allowed a larger representation of women to be cast in it. Again, I know that I am from a different generation and that I have a different perspective on feminism than the characters in the show do. I realize that this show’s purpose is not to portray young bodies because young bodies get all the attention in the mainstream media. But what about young bodies and all the other female bodies that don’t match up to media expectations? Overall, I still find the representation of women sorely limited. A scene with Ruth really drives this home for me. In a wonderfully-acted scene, Ruth confronts Elaine (Anna Hickey), the woman with whom her husband is having an affair. While this scene is powerful, I can’t help but wish it were different. I don’t like the attack of the “other woman” and I don’t like that there’s no chance for Elaine to respond, to apologize, to team up with Ruth and find positivity together, to confront the husband together and demand an answer. Instead, it shames her and seems to condemn her more sexual nature, rather than just the affair. While Ruth’s shift from complacent and shy to outspoken and demanding here is incredible, I found myself clapping but uncomfortably so, wishing the scene had a different result. It certainly takes two to cheat, but it would seem that both women got used here and mutual understanding of one another would be a lot more fulfilling.
At the end of the show, I wasn’t sure what it had accomplished. Did I feel that I had a better understanding of people who lose loved ones to cancer? Maybe. Did I feel proud of womanhood and empowered that we can take control of our bodies and create change? Slightly. Was I happy to see so many women gathering together for a show that they so clearly enjoyed and felt celebrated them? Absolutely. Was I happy to see theater become a safe space for women to relax and enjoy? 100% yes. Did I feel that the show only advocated celebration for a select group of women? Sadly, yes. I had a lot of big expectations for this show that weren’t met. But I don’t think this show was meant for me. But if it does make one woman more comfortable with her body or gets one person thinking about feminism and the representation of female bodies, then it’s succeeded. I’ll just have to wait until next time for the show I was looking for.
Calendar Girls is directed by Mary M. Finnerty and written by Tim Firth. It is playing on Park Square’s Proscenium stage now through July 24th. Show and ticket information can be found on Park Square’s website.
Work cited: Donovan, Josephine. Feminist Theory: Fourth Edition. New York: Continuum, 2012. Print.