Did she go crazy or did she go crazy at you?: “The Art of Burning”

Presented by The Huntington
In association with Hartford Stage
Written by Kate Snodgrass
Directed by Melia Bensussen
Original music by Jane Shaw
Fight direction and intimacy consultancy by Ted Hewlett
Dramaturgy by Charles Haugland
January 13–February 12, 2023

The Huntington @ Calderwood/BCA
527 Tremont St. 
Boston, MA 02216
The Playbill 

Production trigger warnings: slut shaming, victim blaming, mansplaining, manipulative and controlling behavior

Critique by Kitty Drexel

BOSTON, MA — Theatre doesn’t dive into feminine wrath the same way other media does. M3GAN, a current popular horror movie about a prescient AI doll, Jennifer’s Body (2009), and Teeth (2007) all hit the mainstream in ways that other horror plays haven’t. 

Popular theatre gets the Medea myth, the Greek tale about a half goddess, enchantress and unfortunate mother of Jason’s (of the Argonauts fame) who became so enraged by her husband’s infidelity she mercy-kills his children. Honestly, what did Jason expect? They don’t call it divine retribution for nothing.   

The Art of Burning follows five adults and one teen through vicious divorce proceedings. Patricia (Adrianne Krstansky in a wig that is doing no one any favors) and Jason (Rom Barkhordar) are about to finalize their divorce when Patricia requests full custody of their daughter Beth (Clio Contogenis). Jason’s girlfriend Katya (Vivia Font) is pregnant and Jason wants to keep it. Divorce lawyer and friend Mark (Michael Kaye) and his wife Charlene (Laura Latreille) are having marriage problems of their own. 

Patricia’s demand sparks an argument about neglectful parenting. Beth’s school said she didn’t show up that day. Where is Beth? Jason and Mark point fingers. Patricia gloats. The Art of Burning loosely incorporates the Greek Medea/Jason myth and the play by Euripides. 

Snodgrass skillfully examines common double standards that benefit men and punish women. It was/is enough for a father to want to participate in his child’s upbringing. Participation is mandatory for mothers. Men can display anger in public and he is passionate. Women are hysterical.  

The Art of Burning is rife with single moments in which its characters show us contemporary examples of this persistent double standard. Charlene and Mark’s b-plot is devoted to society’s willingness to forgive men before we forgive women for romantic infractions. Media and a “boys will be boys” permissiveness have us trained. 

Photo by T Charles Erickson

Snodgrass and Bensussen show the audience everything we need to know. Both expect their audience to be emotionally and intellectually intelligent. Snodgrass wrote almost no exposition; Bensussen dives into Snodgrass’s play fists first. Audience members will either understand the art, theatre, and myth references or they won’t. Audience members will either comprehend the moral landscape that The Art of Burning explores, or they won’t. On the one hand, that’s a bold choice that pays off well. 

On the other, The Huntington missed a golden opportunity to discuss the world of The Art of Burning’s dramaturgy in the playbill. In the play, Snodgrass discusses at length teenage social media use and its collision with sexual assault. She takes a deep dive into issues of marriage and divorce (a so-simple-it-hurts opportunity for playbill filler). 

Instead, we only get a delightful interview between Melinda Lopez and Snodgrass. The Huntington just paid for a gorgeous new theater. Surely, there must be slightly more in the budget for a few articles in the playbill and online to support a beloved local and international playwright. 

This script has multiple, excellent contemporary monologues for women. There are two monologues for young women (17 – 25) that swiftly pass the Bechdel test that speak directly to the honest experiences of young womanhood. Several more for adult women (older than 30, younger than 65) that speak to feminine rage and mature sexuality. These monologues are insightful, thoughtful, and may make tenured college audition panelists squirm. 

Were the StageSource New England Monologues Project still updating, I would suggest Snodgrass upload her work there for our local community to access. Alas, the project and StageSource are not.  

The acting from the cast is great. The mother-daughter scenes between Krystansky and Contogenis reminded me of the screaming arguments I had with my own mother about dating, assault, and blame in my teens. Parents can say the wrong thing while trying their best. Sometimes a parent’s best is absolute shit. 

Barkhordar absolutely nails the part of the overbearing father who decides he’s going to love his daughter regardless of her consent. These scenes also brought me back to my childhood. I loathed Jason; his acting with the writing was too real.

Hot take/unpopular opinion: If your playbill headshot is ten years old or older, it is time to get new headshots. It no longer looks like you. Lie to yourself all you like: your audience won’t recognize you on the stage.  

We will continue to have only the Medea myth for generations to come until another famous male playwright comes along to write us a different socially acceptable fable about female rage. Or, when discussing female rage becomes as commonplace as discussing male rage: he was asking for it; we have to teach our young men the dangers of going out late; people will say anything to take advantage of a boy.

The Huntington’s “Art of Burning” production page has some kinks to work out.

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