Shaking the Tree’s Chick Fight Is a Thrilling Live Wire
Call me old-fashioned, but I rarely go to the theater and expect to see Barbara Stanwyck’s face superimposed over a meat grinder while Britney Spears’s “Toxic” blares from a distant diorama. Imagine my delight, then, when I walked into Shaking the Tree’s spartan Inner Southeast space on Sunday to find just that—plus a preponderance of mermaids, pomegranates, and portraits of subjects from Medusa to Rihanna.
In a theater-making climate so ravaged by the stops and starts of the past two years, any company could be forgiven for mounting Our Town and the Pulitzer winner du jour to keep their patrons full and happy. But that's not how Shaking the Tree plays ball. Chick Fight, the company’s latest piece, is a devised show presented in nine “rounds” that swirls together art installation, UFC bombast, and feminist critique. (There’s also live cello from Armon LaLonde, done up to look like Robert Pattinson in The Batman.) It’s a singular, unpredictable experience, and if it doesn’t fulfill its every ambition, it exhilarates for having so many in the first place.
Doors open half an hour before curtain, and in that window, audiences are invited to investigate eight dioramas that ring the playing space. They plant thematic seeds both obvious and esoteric: one features a printer spewing photos of maligned women from Hillary Clinton to Britney Spears; another saddles a faceless Eve with Persephone’s pomegranate. Before long, we’re introduced to She (Kayla Hanson) and Her (Rebby Yeur Foster), two audience members thrust into what a disembodied voice promises will be “a fight to the death” because one caught the other texting in the theater. (It's an inciting incident that would make Patti LuPone proud.)
After a warm-up smackdown, the pair proceeds into a series of competitive vignettes (“rounds”), each loosely themed to the pre-show dioramas. An adolescent sleepover ends in asphyxiation. A tug-of-war-style gameshow mocks the rigid ways we talk about mothering. An oppressively polite tea party gives way to flying sandwiches and a gleeful string of four-letter-words. All the while, a god-like voice keeps score, never letting any lightness obscure the fact that we can’t go home until somebody dies.
That sense of underlying danger is Chick Fight’s greatest asset: this is a devilishly unpredictable evening at the theater. Working from thematic through lines developed by the ensemble, Portland playwright Sara Jean Accuardi assembled the script, and even when we can guess where things are headed, she almost always twists the knife a little deeper than we expect. Hanson and Foster are pleasingly mercurial company, able to slip in and out of aggression and victimhood on a dime, and Griffin Dewitt’s lighting design employs loud gels and harsh angles to give the otherwise static playing space a pulse that keeps us on our toes.
If there’s a complaint to lodge, it’s unevenness: as with any series of vignettes, some episodes work better than others. A standout early sequence tracks the rise and fall of a relationship, chronicling meet-cute and comedown with shrewd, wordless blocking from director Samantha Van Der Merwe. The mothering game show, too, delights by tilting well-trod cultural conversations on their sides so the light hits them in new and satisfying ways. When things get too pointed, though, Chick Fight can start to tread water: a bit about the pressures put on female politicians feels both on-the-nose and non-committal, hinting at provocative ideas before settling for bumper-sticker platitudes (though the visual treatment is among the show’s most striking).
Nothing completely misses the mark, though, and we stay with Chick Fight through its final moments, when it takes a deliberate step down from its dizzying peaks to address us eye to eye. Without spoiling too much, the show ends with a bold denial of catharsis (plus a children’s choir cover of “Creep”) that takes some time to marinate. At first, it scans as a potentially brittle logline about the dangers of pitting women against each other, which sits more easily in something broad and shiny like Broadway’s Six than this scrappy, left-of-center concoction.
With time, though, darker edges come in to focus. Chick Fight asks us to remember that wins are ultimately predicated on loss, and to examine the mutual emptiness that ensues when someone lives down to our expectations. It indulges in the surface pleasures of its title and then indicts the audience it’s delighted by doing so; that whiplash gives it real staying power.
When it's time to head home, the dioramas look a little different. "Toxic" doesn't sound the same. You don't reenter the world kinder than you left it, exactly—just a little more careful. Chick Fight is a risk, a deliberately discomfiting statement in a time when comfort is at a premium. You should see it as soon as you can.
7:30 p.m. Thu–Sat, 5 p.m. Sun through April 2 | Shaking the Tree Theatre, $5–33