Pretty is Currency: “Miss Penitentiary”

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Photo credit: Tanner Tinso

Presented by Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company
Written by Laura Neubauer
Directed by Alyce Householter
Choreography by Kaitee Tredway

Oct. 2 – 17, 2015
Boston Playwrights Theater
Boston, MA
Maiden Phoenix on Facebook

Review by Kitty Drexel

Trigger Warning: Feminism

Disclaimer: Ms. Drexel auditioned for Miss Penitentiary and was not cast. She firmly believes that only an ass would allow something like this is taint a review.

(Boston, MA) The prisoners of the International Penitentiary of the Individually Incarcerated are us. If Miss Penitentiary is a creepy show, it’s because western society’s standards of beauty for women are creepy. If the characters remind you of inmates in a mental health facility, it’s because women are held to such impossible beauty goals that they make themselves crazy attempting to obtain them. Like the guests of the “Hotel California,” women can check out any time we like but we may never leave.

Miss Penitentiary is a sympathy-inducing metaphor/literal interpretation of Fashion and Beauty’s cultural regimen of perpetual purge and correction. The lady inmates of the Penitentiary are the captives of their own neuroses. They can only graduate out of prison by perfecting their outward appearance and conforming to the whimsical specifications of the jury in a competition for the most conventional. There is no guarantee that they will not be re-institutionalized.

Sunday’s audience was small. There were just enough of us watching to outnumber the cast. The ladies of Miss Penitentiary weren’t given much from us, their sleepy huddle of gawkers. There definitely weren’t enough of us for the usual stage/seat give and take. That the cast could give such a strong performance for so few people was an indication of their great stamina as performers and strength as actors. At times the pacing flagged and the scenes didn’t build into the next but this seemed more a symptom of a Sunday afternoon matinee than of any creative issue. The cast deserved a more responsive audience and they gave us back twice as much than what we had to offer them. Thank you.

Neubauer’s writing may trigger OCD symptoms, and emotional distress. The trials of the inmates are heightened versions of the average woman’s struggle for screwability… If the average woman were participating in Cosmo’s “2015 Hunger Games for the modern beauty” (sponsored by CoverGirl and Diet Coke) set in a dystopian nightmare prison. A dude might not relate, but any lady who’s bemoaned her unphotoshopped body will. Neubauer’s message doesn’t at first appear universal but the struggles of her characters drip like rain down the psyche. It’s a not so subtle reminder that society has its served women a rotten bill of goods.

Miss Penitentiary is strange, metaphor heavy and dark. Viewers anticipating a lighthearted romp into beauty pageants like Drop Dead Gorgeous will be unpleasantly surprised. There’s also some partial but fun nudity in this one. If you don’t enjoy butts, skip it.

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