Sarah Ruhl Challenges Marriage with Free Love
by Krista Pearl McAtee
“This play is about polyamory” we hear audience members whisper to each other before the play starts. Their childlike giddiness about the taboo topic is exactly what playwright Sarah Ruhl tears to shreds. She tests the boundaries of marriage, love, and family structures in “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage.”
In a sterile, black Ikea living room, two pretentious, yuppie couples gossip about a polyamorous coworker who ethically kills her own meat. Georgia (Karen Offereins) and Paul (Matt Weimer) ask how Pip (Fenner) finds the energy to constantly have sex with her partners. Comically, Paul acts out Pip’s supposed “cat-like” sensuality by rubbing his body all over the couch.
We eat up Offerein and Weimer’s comedic timing and exaggerated motions, bursting into uproarious laughter at their antics. Their friends, Jane (Hillary Hesse) and Michael (Malcolm Rodgers), add to the bit with their own amusing speculations about Pip. Adam L. Sussman brilliantly directs the actors in these over the top jokes, which mirror our stereotypes about polyamorous people.
After Pip arrives with her lovers David (Nick Trengove) and Freddie (Louel Senores), she switches her flirtatious gaze from one person to another. Eventually, Pip uses a karaoke machine to sing “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” with sexually explicit gyrations. We all scream and applaud in sheer delight as Pip grabs her crotch and uses Jane as a stripper pole.
This unbearable tension escalates for us and the performers until an orgy erupts on stage. The whole group tears down the black fabric walls to reveal a luscious, green forest. The destruction of these boundaries releases the animal nature that was “disguised” by marriage and children.
The excitement and utter fury of the scene electrifies the air within the theatre, pushing us to the edge of our seats as we anticipate what could possibly happen next. Our patience is rewarded when Jane’s horrified daughter walks in and begins hatefully calling their bodies “old,” “gross,” and “saggy.”
The fantastic orchestration of this end to Act One leaves us in pools of embarrassment, sympathy, and pure shock. In Act Two, we enter the magical world of the forest where Georgia and Pip are hunting for wild things. Their sentimentality borders on a reckless abandonment of responsibilities. This leaves Georgia struggling to balance between the demands of her marriage and her new found freedom.
“How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” is an entertaining and whimsical experience that incites conversation about love, marriage, and children. Custom Made Theatre does a phenomenal job of bringing Sarah Ruhl’s carnal vision to pulsating life.
“How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Adam L. Sussman, by Custom Made Theatre, San Francisco, through Sunday, February 16, 2020. Info: custommade.org
Cast: Fenner, Hilary Hesse, Celeste Kamiya, Karen Offereins, Malcolm Rodgers, Nick Trengove, Louel Senores, and Matt Weimer.
Banner photo: Malcolm Rodgers, Hilary Hesse, Matt Weimer, Karen Offereins