By Claire McCurdy
Placebos Dress For Comfort, a one-act play by Kimberly Shelby-Szyszko produced at the Manhattan Repertory Theatre, is billed as a tragic one-act about a bikini, an alien, and quasi- liberated couples on vacation. The play is blessed with spirited dialog, an almost manic commitment to gender-bending, and a very active, energetic, funny, and athletic group of actors. The play’s limited engagement originally scheduled to close on August 19, has been extended with an added date on Sunday, August 22nd to accommodate demand.
The theatre serenaded us with the mellow sounds of Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” and “Fly Me to the Moon” on a continuous loop. The place was packed with twenty-somethings and thirty- somethings, (overheard: “Yes, someday I’ll graduate!”). Very vivacious friendly vibe. The exceptions to the demographic were a sandy-haired guy in a pinstripe suit, who sat in the middle of the first row, and myself. But we laughed just as hard as everyone else.
So what could we expect? Placebos Dress For Comfort is described as “exploring social constructs of gender.” And indeed it does. “By the end of the play, the distinctions between genders, opposing activists, and even species, become blurred.” Absolutely true. What the blurb doesn’t say is that the blur starts from the very beginning. And that the play is funny, acrobatic, bizarre, and entertaining. In the end we scarcely cared who is what or who…we were simply enjoying ourselves.
Frank was hastily switched off, and beginning of the one act play was heralded by the theme 2001: A Space Odyssey. The play opens with a setup reminiscent of 18th century court dances—two rows of three actors facing each other. It is in the middle space that most of the action takes place. No courtly dancing per se; but much athletic action. You get the picture.
The play ostensibly takes place in the honeymoon suite at an opulent seaside resort somewhere near Graceland, and the actors are the honeymooners. They call each other by sickeningly sweet nicknames (“glitterbug” and “special sauce”). They bicker, they spat, (“It’s our first fight!”) they swoop, they soar, they make fists and yell, they smooch, they hit each other, they giggle, they dance.
The actors exchange sex /sexuality, as denoted by clothing, very rapidly. They call themselves “shapelifters” who shop at Bergdorf’s. Couples are composed of girls dressed as girls, girls dressed as boys, boys dressed as girls, boys dressed as boys, each costume and gender change heralded by the smack of high fiving palms slapping together, and the nuzzling smooching coming together of sweethearts. Both woman are convincing as women, then as men. Even more intriguing, the men seem able to play it both straight and gay without causing the audience to wince in discomfort.
Two actors announce that they are enlightened aliens, from thirty light years away, marching about mechanically and uttering in a robo-droid monotone made familiar to us by too many space odysseys. They say, direly, “There are things I haven’t told you.” They say, “We are an imitation of civilian toads.” The bones of Edna St. Vincent Millay are invoked.
A red velvet hanging interrupts the action. When the actors peek out from the hanging, even the clothing signifiers drop away—a man later plays a woman convincingly without the prop of a dress.
It all happens so quickly that this audience goer could scarcely keep pace. And yet at one point the actors yell, “Stop the fantasy!” and we are inclined to agree.
Much is made of a green bra, tossed back and forth to men and women. The story ends with a man and woman both shocked to see that they both are wearing a full two-piece green bikini. Applause! Applause!
So let’s talk to the playwright.
Kimberly Shelby-Szyszko (above), born in Michigan, calls Manhattan her home since her arrival at Hofstra University. A multi-talented person, she says she seldom sleeps–she jumps into the process of writing immediately, leaping up with ideas full-blown in her head. Her long involvement with theater has allowed her to view in the mind’s eye a possible scenario including the stage, its specific dimension, and the actors, so that the process from thought to writing the play is continuous. Screenwriting, she said, by contrast, is almost limitless—one can expand the imagination as far as is possible.
And the process of producing a play does not end with the writing. Kimberly, along with the director, and producer, is actively involved with stagecraft—she is integrally involved with the production of the play. It is a symbiotic process. As to the audience, what Kimberly seeks is a commitment to active thought and analysis.
She commented about her desired audience. She wanted the play to be about, and to appeal to, an older demographic—people in their 40’s and possibly their 50’s. However, desired demographics are for people 17 years to 30 years of age. But she said that the Placebo actors, although most were in their 30’s, were comfortable playing older. They have embraced the text and proven themselves truly versatile. She is completely comfortable with their work.
Kimberly has written plays, screen plays, pieces for a TV series, and esson plans and articles which have been published in MetroParent Magazine, and for which she received a Gold Award from Parenting Publications of America.
Her plays have been seen throughout New York City. Recent work includes Whispers in 3-Part Atrophy, realized by Obie-award-winning director George Ferencz, and Grimke’s Shadow, about the lesbian poet/playwright Angelina Weld Grimké. She is the founder of John Morgan’s Plight Theatre Project. Kimberly’s play, Zorah’s Magic Carpet, an adaptation of Stefan Czernecki’s story, will soon be published by www.Youthplays.com
Kimberly earned her Bachelor’s degree at Hofstra University. She also trained at Specs Howard School of Broadcast Arts and Marygrove College.
Manhattan Repertory Theatre
303 West 42nd Street, 3rd floor
7 p.m. Thursday, August 19
6 p.m. Sunday, August 22
Tickets are $20
Reservations can be made by calling 646-329-6588.