Galatea (Treehouse Shakespeare Ensemble) @ The Wharf Studio

Much of John Lyly’s Galatea riffs on individuals learning who they are while being forced to present themselves as something they are not: nymphs who’ve been magically made to fall in love, girls dressed as boys to avoid a ritual sacrifice of virgins, boys temporarily becoming apprentices to unsuitable masters. Self-identification, throughout the play, becomes a source of rhetorical but also emotional play, as an individual’s sense of their own self becomes conditional on that of others. As Galatea (disguised as ‘Tityrus’) and Phyllida (disguised as ‘Melebeus’) fall in love with one another, their innocent courtship takes the form of euphuistic conditional debate, each refusing to fix their own gender presentation until they have fixed the other’s, and both inhabiting the fluid space of coming-into-being, their sexual identity and their gender expression emerging as a result of, simply, love. In Treehouse Shakespeare Ensemble’s production, directed by Cole Metz, this fluidity enabled a touching, and very funny, dramatization of the process of learning who you are.

The framing device for this small-scale production took place on a Girl Scouts’ campout. In near-complete darkness, lit by handheld flashlights, the Scouts entered and hid, before their leader (Rosemary Richards) came to drag them out of their hiding places, one by one. Richards’s leader worked out quickly where to find most of them (one, Kara Hankard, given away by the noise of eating potato chips behind a curtain; another, Beth Harris, barely even bothering to hide as she read a book by torchlight). The first one who had appeared, though, played by Ariel Tatum, was not so easily found, and had to reveal themselves. Tatum’s character was new to the group, and while this gave them an advantage in not being able to be found quite so easily, it also meant they were learning how to fit in, trying to keep up with the clapping games that the others were clearly long familiar with, and failing to jump in at the right moment with their own contribution – a disruption marked by a harumphing senior (Mikaela Hanrahan), who turned her back grumpily on the newcomer. Looking for an in, Tatum’s Scout turned their torch on their own face and began telling a ghost story – the story of the Agar, a story which the rest of the troupe jumped in to continue.

The story of Galatea thus emerged as a story performed by the Girl Scouts for themselves. In the style of companies such as the Handlebards, the company used only the props carried by the Scouts themselves, resulting in some beautifully creative physical play. Backpacks and satchels became the Roman gods, their zip pockets acting as mouths and their clasps as eyes, carried in front of (in one case, even over the top of) the Scouts’ heads as they boomed out the gods’ pronouncements. The sashes of the Scouts became bows for nymphs; Harris’s book became the Mariner’s tricorne; and their torches became the Astronomer’s telescopes. The frame device never let up; when not actually playing characters within Galatea, the Scouts sat, rapt and often smiling, at the work of their colleagues, and illuminated them with torchlight in a technically elaborate system of communal responsibility. While the light levels were not always high enough to show off the nuances of both the prop-play and the actors’ faces, the ensemble storytelling was an essential part of this production’s ethos, in which everyone in this troupe needed everyone else to fully realize themselves.

And these Scouts were having fun. The entirely female/non-binary cast took Galatea as a base-text to explore the joys and emotional extremes of girlhood, and the high energy with which the actors threw themselves into the characters of Scouts in turn throwing themselves into this silly bit of classical myth was wonderful to see. In one of the funniest storylines, Cupid – played by Hanrahan, with heart-shaped sunglasses and a constant smirk – sought vengeance on the upright nymphs of Diana who dismissed the idea of love. Cupid ingratiated himself with the nymphs, pretending to be one of them, but tying his love knots and leading them away from Diana. In a scene marked hilariously by crescendo, the nymphs entered one by one, forlorn in love for Tityrus and Melebeus, and Cupid smilingly played guitar as each of the nymphs in turn broke into a weepy chorus of Paramore’s ‘The Only Exception’, the nymphs growing in numbers and volume as they embraced their awful fate. Later, and more joyfully, Cupid led them in Björk’s ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’, the nymphs now more riotous in their celebration of love – at least until Diana (Richards) came to chastise them.

This dynamic marked much of Galatea – the exuberant excess of chaos and pure feeling, followed by the return to sobriety. Diana, with purse over her head, could have been a ridiculous figure, but Richards’s eerie, hunched body language and firm voice cut across the humour (accompanied by Tatum’s beautiful harp-playing, the harp being the one breaking of the rule of only using objects that the Scouts were likely to have with them). The nymphs were literally brought back in line, disciplined and retrained in physical movements in ways that recalled Richard’s blowing of a kazoo in her frame role as the Scouts’ troupe leader.  The controlling of the excess presented Diana as authoritarian – Cupid didn’t break his smile as he was brought before her and condemned to untie love knots – but also offered a framework for how to behave that was tempting, appealing even, amid the chaos, and set up a fascinating argument between the reassuring rigidity of Diana’s collective, and the dangerous but liberating chaos represented by Cupid.

This debate took a different form in the comic subplot. Richards played Rafe, Robin, and Dick in a frankly hilarious set-piece bit of physical comedy, with a sock on either hand allowing her to hold three-way conversations with herself while the grumpy Mariner (Harris, then Tatum – one of a number of roles where the signifier, here an open book atop the head, was passed between different Scouts, keeping identity constantly fluid) tried to instruct them. For all of the comedy of the socks shaking their heads and bickering with one another, though, Richards found pathos in Robin’s shock at the idea that drowning might mean death, and in the plaintive worries of the three boys about what would happen if they didn’t have a teacher. Like Galatea and Phyllida, these comic apprentices were lost in the forest without a framework to show them what to be, and so they set out to seek one.

Dramaturg Keith Taylor’s work on ideas of authority in Galatea explored the unreliability of authority figures, especially teachers, and Rafe’s journey through a range of unreliable masters allowed the production to indulge its most extravagant excesses. In the characters of the Mariner, Peter (Harris again), the Alchemist (Hanrahan) and especially the Astronomer (Hanrahan again), Rafe encountered an increasingly bewildering range of people who spoke in arcane technical language, but whose words seemed devoid of content. Peter and the Alchemist’s litany of scientific terms provided space for Rafe to undermine everyone with shrugs of ignorance, and the Astronomer – constantly staring up into a torch that shone into his face, suggesting perhaps that his performance of the pursuit of knowledge was also a form of self-blinding – roared his privileged knowledge with authority determined by volume, a volume which only made his repeated interest in the ‘ANUS!’ all the funnier. But in these figures, the rigidity of rules and service was itself undermined by the unreliable, chaotic excess of those figures, leaving Rafe no choice but to repeatedly run away.

The queering of identity throughout all of these storylines, in which identity, authority, certainty, rules, and sexuality all became inverted and troubled, found its heart in the Galatea and Phyllida storyline. Harris took on the roles of both Tityra and Melebea (mothers here), collapsing the two irascible fathers into a single unreasonable mother whose initial desire to transform the identities of their two daughters transformed later into an insistence on the fixity of the genders ascribed to them at birth (the somewhat TERFy implications of Tityra and Melebea’s refusal to countenance either of their daughters becoming a boy were not pushed, but were simply firmly dismissed by the gods). Galatea (Tatum) and Phyllida (Hankard) were quickly set up with their new identities – literally name-tags stuck on them, in a beautiful joke at the arbitrariness of cross-gender disguise – and sent off into the woods to work out who they were meant to be, and took that opportunity to challenge what they knew about both their own identities and the concept of identity itself.

It’s hard to overstate the utter winsomeness of Tatum and Hankard’s performances. Of the two, Phyllida was the one who most overtly reacted negatively to the idea of dressing as a boy, stamping her feet petulantly at first, and later reappearing trudging through the forest, caricaturing a notion of masculinity. Galatea’s resistance to her father’s wishes was based more on her noble desire to die, a desire her father refused; she embraced the idea of gender disguise more quizzically, basing her own quasi-masculine stamping through the forest on what she observed in Phyllida. As the two met, the production began mirroring them precisely, the two looking at and learning from one another; the simple gesture of them both trying to bow in a manly way to one another on greeting left them both stuck at horizontal right angles, trying to work out how to get out of what they had set up for one another. But this process of learning from one another on an entirely equal level set up the play’s only positive representation of education – an education in which they learned from observing and coming to know one another intimately.

Phyllida and Galatea’s romance took the form of any camp romance, in a narrative that bled through into the frame device. They asked one another questions that were initially also defensive, the two shaking off some of their more sincere pronouncements in faux-manly dismissals of silliness. Their conditional questions felt like a game, trying to find chinks in the other’s argument, leaping on moments that seemed to reveal their truth to one another. And in the sudden flashes of sincere expression of feeling – where the conditions seemed, for a moment, to be suspended in an embrace of love regardless of what each perceived the other’s gender to be – the production found its epiphanies. One such moment occurred as the two sat back to back and reached one hand around to touch the other’s, their bodies doing the work that their hands could not do. And the threat of the Agar offered an outside stimulus to keep the stakes high; in one beautifully quiet moment, Phyllida broke off their rhetorical wooing to sit, look out towards their home, and reflect on the dangers that awaited them. The two’s repeated choice to run back into the woods to know one another better was played for innocence, a retreat together to a world where their fluidity not only didn’t matter, but actually created the space for them to know one another better – postponing the return to the authoritarian masculine knowledge represented by the booming Neptune for as long as possible.

Neptune’s tyranny was realized both comically and sincerely in the stand-out Haebe sequence. The priests of the town were openly parodic, chanting their ritual as they brought the most beautiful maiden they could find to the sacrificial tree. Hanrahan briefly became the main character as Haebe emerged from nowhere and asserted herself as the main character. Her epic set-piece speech, in which she embraced her unhappiness, committed to the sacrifice she was making to save her town, and bid farewell to all other maidens, was played with full emotion and commitment; Hanrahan’s Haebe bound herself, held herself out, threw herself to the floor and owned her own destiny. The bathetic comic conclusion to this – in which it was revealed that the Agar hadn’t come because Haebe wasn’t beautiful enough – was funny and sad, Haebe’s devastation and relief commingled as the priests escorted her away. But it was also a reminder of the arbitrariness of Neptune’s categories and judgements, his deliberate destruction of specific ideals of female beauty, against which the queer fluidity of the other storylines offered revolutionary potential.

The arrival of Venus for the production’s conclusion found the solution, compromising between the chaos of Cupid, the rigidity of Diana, and the authoritarianism of Neptune. As the gods (bags) debated with one another, Venus offered the solution that embraced the potential of chaotic love to be a solution by redefining the rules of Diana and Neptune in order to legitimize queerness. The love shared by Phyllida and Galatea, who had eyes only for one another even after their ‘true’ identities were revealed, offered the clearest fixed point. Rules, this production suggested, should not be based around arbitrary categories of gender identity; rather, the rules should change to align with the only one constant – love. And the ambivalence left by Lyly over who was to be transformed became here an occasion to insist that love trumps all, regardless of anyone’s attempt to ascribe significance to (cis)gender identity. Throwing aside their characters, the Scouts gathered in a circle with their torches to belt out Taylor Swift’s ‘Mine’ to one another, drawing the audience into clapping along, before slowing down to let Hankard and Tatum’s scouts plaintively sing the final lines to one another. If Tatum’s character had started this story in an attempt to fit in, by this moment, love and acceptance had brought them fully into the harmony, a camp romance that felt life-changing.

This review was developed while working with Treehouse Shakespeare Ensemble through rehearsals, as part of a process of embedded criticism.

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