Amanda DeMaio debuted Unrelenting Relaxation three years after our nation declared 1992 "The Year of the Woman," which was a response to the record number of female senators elected to Congress that year, which was, in turn, a reaction to the all-male Congressional verbal raping of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings the year before. So, suffice it to say, by 1995, women in America were feeling pretty good about themselves and their new positions as congresswomen and CEOs, and a play focusing on five European women who'd been kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during World War II wasn't what any of us wanted to hear. We'd come a long way, after all, baby.
When STAGEStheatre founding member and director/playwright DeMaio's gut-wrenchingly raw, fictitious testament to real women who had endured mutilation, sterilization and a multitude of unimaginable violations at the hands of Japanese soldiers resurfaced in 2001, the positive OC and LA reviews were plentiful. All but one focused exclusively on the dual tragedies of how war makes men do things they'd otherwise never consider and how this particular legacy of shame is still denied by the Japanese government. The one review that was able to put the play into a somewhat-modern context was written after 9/11 and ended in a tonal summation of "war is hell, and we might just be heading into another one."
Timing, they say, is everything, and while watching the five female characters of Unrelenting Relaxation relate the sickening secrets of their sexual captivity to an offstage male interviewer, I didn't abstractly ruminate on the war-is-hell concept. I was also unfazed that such atrocities had occurred and that they were still denied. I certainly didn't excuse the violence as "inevitable" due to the pressures of combat. Instead, I realized this play is what we in the media business call an evergreen: a story that can run any time because it will always be relevant. Savagery toward women is not just a wartime pastime; it is alive and well, in fact, and currently on our nation's front-burner.
Unrelenting Relaxation at STAGEStheatre, www.stagesoc.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through May 27. $18-$20.
Dehumanizing women has always given a certain type of guy the violent jollies, and it doesn't need to be government-sanctioned to gain momentum. That can help, of course, and I'd like to invite you for an afternoon of transvaginal ultrasounds after we brunch with my slutty, Ph.D.-degreed girlfriends and some radical, feminist nuns. No, the urge to purge on the female form doesn't take much stoking, and the question this play raises—these days, especially—is not how some evil foreign regime could do such a thing (they're still doing it, of course), but why, even in this modern age, women remain punching bags for rage and what, exactly, is the freakish biological element that makes men, to varying degrees, feel so elated when wielding those fists and words.
I'm no psychologist, so I can't answer that question. But our current climate of hostility toward all things female made it incredibly easy to link DeMaio's historical narratives to the modern issues surrounding American women and their sisters in peril across the globe. And while the interviews are set 25 years ago regarding a war that ended 40 years earlier, the minimalist set and costumes of indiscernible period create a loosening of time's grip, forcing us to listen and absorb each narrative—and these detailed stories should not be lost in the shuffling deck of misogynistic themes.
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The stories DeMaio constructed from piecemeal information she gathered during the primitive days of the Internet are undeniably compelling and paramount to the understanding of the effects of such violence. And the actresses putting a human face to the horror are so convincing that the production often feels like a docudrama. Aryln McDonald, as the Polish piano prodigy Dorothy Rothschild, delivers a nuanced performance of suppressed fury that simply stuns. Nancy Tyler's English military wife, Elizabeth Serra's Danish medical student, Jill Cary Martin's Finnish housewife and Jennifer Pearce's parisianne ballerina are equally deserving of praise, with the entire cast pulling off pitch-perfect accents. Director Mike Martin moves the women around just enough to offer some optical exercise, with the only real distraction of the production being the presence of the male interviewer, who is referred to in the play's text as simply "a male voice" and might have been more effective had he remained such.
The rest of the men—the ones in the audience—should stay. They should even bring their wives, girlfriends, daughters, mothers and sisters with them. After all, the only way to keep history from repeating itself is to know history—and to let those around you know which side of it you're on.
This review appeared in print as "Just a Little Bit of History Repeating: Unrelenting Relaxation is far more than an archival record of rape."