A koan, as defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment.” Linda Carson’s play “Suffragette Koans” is certainly paradoxical, as well as whimsical and ephemeral, but seems unlikely to provide sudden intuitive enlightenment.
Although the piece touches upon various important issues with lyrical prose and sassy charm, it never truly explores any subject in depth: It’s all meringue and no pie. Joyce Piven’s direction of this American premiere, however, is graceful and intelligent, and she benefits from a clearly talented ensemble.
In the program Piven describes this play as “a meditation on the underside of feminine consciousness,” particularly women at the beginning of the 20th century, and the five women who occupy the stage in their Victorian undergarments seem to be in a dream state. Anisette (June Raphael) speaks of her explicitly sexual dreams and pressing flowers flat between her thighs. Cecily (Karyn Dwyer) experiments with her sexuality, from the oddly pleasurable elements of bicycle riding to learning that it’s often better to be the seducer than the seduced. Sorrel (Kirstin Hinton) learns the value of books and Slinkies, Melissa (Kim Kuhteubl) explains the difference between koans and fables, and Rue (Pasha McKenley) tries out a flying hat and being an intellectual — and literal — giant.
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Raphael has a delicacy of delivery burnished with sly wit, and, although it’s a small thing, her miming of pulling an invisible string for needlepoint is perfect. Dwyer is equally good as the adventurous Cecily, catching up on all the fun she can. Hinton uses her wonderfully malleable face to create expressions from severity to silliness, and she is touching as the illiterate woman in the final story. McKenley is appropriately excitable as the flying woman and regal as the giant, and Kuhteubl is amusing in several scenes.
Piven and choreographer Jennifer Li keep the staging fresh by constantly forming the ensemble into a series of tableaux, with the simple yet evocative accompaniment of bells or percussion. Piven’s decision to use a yellow cord to represent the bicycle works quite well, and she even manages to make the twee symbolism of the final sequence work through the strength of her actors.
It should be noted, however, that this show is a slender one-act with a 30-minute running time — a fact not mentioned in the advertising. Some of the audience was surprised on opening night. On top of that, the top price for tickets in this small house is $30, or a rather-steep dollar a minute in a town with a plethora of full-length shows on offer for $20 or $10.