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Theater Review (NYC): Caitlin and the Swan by Dorothy Fortenberry

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If you’re looking for the most savage depiction of the plight of the college-educated young woman struggling to manage work/life balance, don’t look to Sex and the City, Real Housewives of New York, or even the Fight Club spoof on last week’s 30 Rock. Instead, you’ll find it at UNDER St. Marks in Caitlin and the Swan, yet another fine production by The Management. In an adult working girls' night out, everything is going relatively normally until you hear a beast bellowing from behind the stage so loudly that it seems more fitting for a Martin McDonagh play. Yet it turns out that the bellow is from Peter the Pig, the new physical relationship (or as the kids call it these days, fuck buddy) of married, bored, and still virile Rachel (Teresa Stephenson). Peter, in the world of this play, isn’t just a metaphorical pig. 

That her friends don’t walk out in disgust is a sign that playwright Dorothy Fortenberry did not have realism in mind when writing Caitlin and the Swan, but the emotional plight of the women who make up the play is as real as anything. All three of the central female characters have a different species that brings out their animal instincts: Rachel her pig, Indian lesbian gynecologist Priya (Shetal Shah) a cat, and Caitlin (the exceptionally versatile Marguerite French), whose indecision becomes the central focus of the play, the Swan that haunts the lawn of the too-smart-for-his-own-good Bastian (Jake Aron) whom Caitlin is SAT tutoring.

As the choreography, costumes, and names indicate, Caitlin and the Swan is something of a revisionist feminist adaptation of Swan Lake: in addition to the gender reversal of who woos the swan, while Tchaikovsky’s ballet focused on marriage and commitment, Caitlin and the Swan focuses on pure sexual desire. The endings are reversed as well; the ballet ends with a sad but beautiful romantic image of forlorn lovers falling into the sea, while Fortenberry’s play ends happily with Caitlin satisfied with her life but having had to perform a senseless act of violation and destruction to trigger that ending.

The impossibility of total happiness is a common enough theme, but it applies especially to the female graduate of an elite undergraduate education. In today's world, the Working Girl romantic vision of the dual life of a professional woman has been shattered, but the Stepford Wives vision hasn't come back either. Instead, we now have a real world where 60% of female graduates of Yale plan to sacrifice parts of their careers when they have children, where the ever-increasing dominance of the online word is plagued with rampant anonymous misogyny — yet the Sex and the City myth of being able to live single life to the fullest still pervades our culture.

Fortenberry, a Yale School of Drama alumna who may very well have conceived parts of Caitlin and the Swan while that debate raged at Yale, has a keen eye for reducing larger social mores to the world of individual characters — however twisted that world may be — without reducing the characters themselves. Occasionally, she can let these larger themes override naturalistic dialogue or total consistency, but her occasional lapses in Caitlin and the Swan are more than made up for by the originality in her expression.

Along with director Joshua Conkel, who showed his willingness to depict the role of rural deviancy in a larger American framework in September’s The Chalk Boy, Caitlin and the Swan marks The Management’s rapid ascent towards becoming one of the leading voices of downtown Manhattan theater; The Management's audience has grown with each production I’ve seen, and if the economy forces theater dilettantes to go further off-Broadway to avoid high ticket prices, all the better, as half the shows currently on Broadway don’t have the keen vision of what American theater needs that The Management has constantly displayed through black box productions.

Finally, there's another cultural factor in play here that may make Caitlin and the Swan an even more significant work in future generations. With themes of bestiality expressed so frankly and without a consideration for realism, Caitlin and the Swan may be the first major play to address a subculture that most online media users caustically acknowledge, but few outside that world dare consider. Rick Santorum supporters, hide your eyes: we now have a play that addresses furry fandom in full force.

For those without exposure to the full underbelly of the Internet, furry fandom is the online subculture of anthropomorphized animal enthusiasts, often with a sexual fetish involved. If you’ve interacted with college or high school students recently, read enough Inside Baseball Internet nerd blogs, or researched the history of Second Life, you’re probably aware of this culture. If not, be prepared for the next alternate lifestyle battle our culture will be facing, shortly after American society has addressed the homosexuality and transgendered debate.

This fetish freaks me out, but I've learned not to question cultural trends once they become established on the Internet. Once that issue becomes a mainstream topic, however, expect future generations to look at Caitlin and the Swan as a launching point in the theatrical debate. Whether or not she has intended this to be the case, Fortenberry has taken the furry fetish and both made it real in her theatrical world, and expressed how real-world members of the subculture can address the issue. For the moment, however, it's just as easy to treat Caitlin and the Swan as a fun, smart, and raucous experience that addresses current American issues in The Management's trademark slanted style, in addition to pointing to where things are going in the future.

Caitlin and the Swan by Dorothy Fortenberry; directed by Joshua Conkel; choreography by Croft Vaughn; original music by Colin Wambsgans; sound design by Adam Swiderski; costume design by Caite Hevner; set design by Timothy McCown Reynolds; lighting design by Kelsi Welter and Conkel; photos by Moira Stone.

Starring Jake Aron (Bastian), Brian Robert Burns (Doug), Elliott Reiland (Pig/Swan), Marguerite French (Caitlin), Shetal Shah (Priya), and Teresa Stephenson (Rachel).

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