By Patricia Tobin
(538 words, 5-minute read)
From Stepford Wives to The Real Housewives, the idealised American woman is always found in the kitchen. But is she happy? In The Feminine Mystique (1963), Betty Friedan found that most housewives of this era were unfulfilled within the domestic space. Creator-director Emanuella Amichai addresses this in The Neighbor’s Grief is Greener by dismantling the fractured identity of women in the 1950s. With a twisted smile, the show tackles the stifling societal conformity imposed on women through bold visuals and arresting physical performances.
Performers Ayala Bresler-Nardi, Meirav Elchadef, Merav Dagan and Julie Nesher play out caricatures of objectified mid-20th century women. There is the perfect housewife, the sexpot, the shy klutz, and a woman with a pail over her head, a metaphor for those with heads buried in the sand. The lone male character (Jeremie Elffasy) is naturally, the husband.
The era is a playground for the cast: the women lip sync to The Chordettes’ ‘Mr. Sandman’, a couple performs a scene from I Love Lucy, the sexpot reenacts a Marilyn Monroe interview. This takes place on a stage floor awash with bright red blood where a cooking demonstration has gone wrong. The dizzying feminine energy, set in tension with the striking representation of lurking violence is morbidly fascinating. The klutz falls but ends up happily splashing among the blood and later, strips to a leotard and performs a synchronised swimming routine. Her carefree display is enthralling as she stays afloat amidst the blood. Her graceful athleticism conveys a yearning to be the woman of her dreams, unfettered by patriarchy.
Most of all, the performative act of gender is deeply apparent, as after all, the women put on a show both literally and metaphorically. When the man is onstage, the women often “play dead”, sprawled across the blood-soaked floor. They are occasionally playthings for the man, as he drags them across the stage or rearranges their poses. The women’s lethargy highlights a disparity between their portrayal as distinct individuals and their sporadic passive behaviour. Amichai reinforces Friedan’s argument here, that a woman always suffers a loss of identity within a patriarchal regime.
The women’s fragmented identity reflected in this era is purposeful, yet the 1950s framework equally restricts Amichai’s fiercely feminist ambition. The show ends with a couple in a slow dance, showcasing the then-ideal version of a happy ending. Amichai aims for irony with what might be perceived as a loving embrace or a final, fatal dance of death, but it also abruptly halts the idiosyncratic feminine energy found in previous scenes. This framing is off putting, awkward even.
In the post-show discussion, Amichai stated that The Neighbor’s Grief is Greener first premiered eight years ago but that the piece is always evolving. However, it is difficult to find the relevancy of a 1950s satirical production in today’s #MeToo feminist wave. The show’s sealed world is cut off from the very real pressures faced by modern women. The identity crisis of predominantly white, hetrosexual, middle-class housewives sits opposed to the rise of intersectional feminism. The gendered physicality, macabre window dressing and seductive visuals are alluring but intrinsically performative. The impact or message is suppressed by the outmoded constraints of a bygone era.
This review is based on the performance on 24 January 2018 at 8pm. The Neighbor’s Grief Is Greener by Emanuella Amichai ran from 23 to 24 January at the Esplanade Theatre Studio as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.
Patricia Tobin is an arts writer from Singapore. She tweets at @havesomepatty.
This review was written as part of the Lyn Gardner Theatre Criticism Training Program, an Initiative by the National Arts Council, managed by ArtsEquator.com.