When you think about classic horror flicks, the word “feminism” probably doesn’t jump out at you– those blood-bathed scenes are usually dominated by hot young women, running around helpless and screaming for their lives. But Spicy Witch Productions is turning the slasher genre on its head in their new repertory season at The Clemente, by exploring the fetishization of violence through the lens of an all-female creative team.
Founded in 2013, Spicy Witch invites playwrights to pair classical plays with contemporary works in an effort to initiate conversations about gender and provide substantial opportunities for emerging female playwrights, actors, and other women working in the theatre scene.
This year’s resident playwright Annette Storckman knew exactly what she wanted to work on from the start– an adaptation of The Revenger’s Tragedy, a Jacobean blood-and-gore fest. She was struck by the parallels between the campy 17th-century satire and 1980s slasher movies, one of her favorite genres. “[The Revenger’s Tragedy] is totally like a modern horror because the murderer is motivated by cruelty more than just justice,” she said. “He takes real pleasure in killing.”
The original Revenger’s Tragedy, written by Thomas Middleton in 1606, is an over-the-top satire of contemporary sexual politics and the theatre tropes of the time. Middleton even threw in a few Hamlet jokes for good fun (it opens with the main character talking to a skull). In the play, a young man named Vindice seeks revenge against the Duke for killing his fiancé. The audience experiences events as they play out from Vindice’s perspective while he engineers the death of the Duke and his entire family (who are quarreling over succession rights) in graphic detail, culminating in a Tarantino-esque blood-splattering dinner party.
“Audiences often enjoy the violence without a critical eye on why that is satisfying for us,” said Rebecca Weiss, who directed The Revenger’s Tragedy. “When I decided to take it on as a director, I was really fascinated by how we could produce this play and be invested in Vindice’s story and still find him likable and have fun with him, while still being aware of some of the problems of the misogyny in the play.”
Misogyny is especially evident in Vindice’s weird obsession with maintaining the virginity of his sister, Castiza. When he finds out that the Duke wants to sleep with her, he doesn’t just protect her– he disguises himself to test her moral fiber. Castiza remains committed to protecting her virginity and is held up as an angel. But their mother is weaker. Enticed by gifts, she encourages her daughter to submit to the Duke’s son, drawing Vindice’s ire.
In her modern adaption, Bonesetter: A Tragislasher, Storckman turned Castiza into the protagonist: Clarissa, a teen in the 1980s on the cusp of discovering her sexuality. “In The Revenger’s Tragedy anyone who is virginal lives, anyone who has had sex at all dies, exactly like slasher flicks,” Storckman said. “But I mostly wanted to talk about virginity as bodily autonomy.” The playwright explained that she wanted to explore that strange moment in puberty was sexuality is “budding” but “you’re not necessarily ready to have intercourse with someone.” For Storckman, this was a way to confront the stigma of being a virgin. “You’re either a prude for being one or a slut for not being one.”
As the heroine of the story, Clarissa must navigate the date rape of her friend (a fleshed-out parallel to a footnote in the plot of The Revenger’s Tragedy) and her own new relationship with the Mayor’s son, while also figuring out how to defeat the Bonesetter, a shadowy figure who also happens to be on a mission to kill the Mayor’s family and anyone who slept with them.
“Part of the motivation for the Bonesetter in particular is, of course, he is killing anyone that the Mayor’s family has touched, and touched sexually,” Storckman said. “It’s like this twisted misogyny that comes off as ‘I am protecting women,’ when you’re really not.”
As a parallel to the Vindice/Castiza relationship, Clarissa eventually finds out the murderer is her own brother, Victor, who has a vendetta against the Mayor. Victor’s also willing to kill Clarissa if she sleeps with the Mayor’s son. But she manages to outsmart her brother and, as she stabs him to death, shouts, “It’s weird how much you care about my sex life!” It’s a flip on honor killing– one that makes for a rare occurrence in that it will satisfy horror lovers lusting for blood and critical feminists alike.
Although both plays deal with some serious themes, they are first and foremost comedies. Even the bloody scenes had many in the audience laughing at the exaggerated gore. “I was very interested in exploring camp as a means of transporting ideas,” Storckman said. “More than anything I wanted to revel in the fun of slasher films while also getting a message across.”
The two plays, showing on alternating nights, can be seen on their own, but watching both will give you a deeper perspective on their intertwined plots.
The Revenger’s Tragedy plays May 18 and 20 at 8 pm and May 21 at 2 p.m. Bonesetter: A Tragislasher plays May 17, 19 and 21 at 8 pm and May 22 at 2 pm Flamboyan Theater at The Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center 107 Suffolk Street New York NY 10002. Tickets are $20 per show, or $30 for both.