“Why don’t you want to talk about sex?” inquires Cecily in an innocuous tone, addressing the crowd of characteristically guarded Washingtonians. The silence speaks volumes.
That night’s crowd includes a small mammal biologist and his daughter, an employee from a Smithsonian museum, a French diplomat and a Johns Hopkins grad student.
Blame the serious nature of many of our occupations, our busy schedules, or maybe even a sort of cultural PTSD from Monica Lewinsky or Clarence Thomas or Weinergate, but D.C. is definitely not a city at ease with its sexuality.
Despite this initial setback, Cecily and her fellow anthropologist Gwendolyn have managed to convince several of us to join them on stage and illustrate the process of a sperm inseminating an egg. During which they’ve also managed to get the small marine biologist to serenade us with “No Woman, No Cry”.
We discuss venereal disease, we debate the relevance of the biological imperative. Somehow the topic veers towards lesbian chimps.
As far as audience participatory theatre goes, Cecily and Gwendolyn’s Fantastical Capital Anthropological Inquisitorial Probe is delightfully no frills. Philadelphia-area improv artists Karen Getz and Kelly Jennings have created the characters of Cecily (Jennings) and Gwendolyn (Getz), a duo of charmingly curious cultural anthropologists from Victorian England. They have time-travelled to 2012 in a magical hot-air balloon in order to study the modern-era American in its natural habitat. To do that, they engage us in an hour-long inquiry that is random, occasionally thought-provoking, mostly delightful, sometimes uncomfortable, but never boring.
The duo begins the show by handpicking three audience members to serve as the designated ethnographer (note-taker), “picture-ologist” (picture-drawer) and “lead informant” (topic-chooser) of the evening’s dialogue. The lead informant ended up choosing the topic of education—which scared me at first—the prospect of discussing education on a Saturday night isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but I was pleasantly surprised.
Gwendolyn asks us how our city furthers our education. One audience member points to D.C.’s many museums, and the fact that they are free. “Free museums?”, says Cecily, dumbfounded. “And they were captive before?” One person in the crowd reminds us that no one even goes to them. “You don’t go to the museums?” Both Cecily and Gwendolyn are aghast. Apparently they’ve discovered a city where no one goes to the museums. One man mentions that he works at the Smithsonian. “Oh, so, do you work from home?” asks Cecily incredulously. Someone adds that they do visit the museums, but only when people from out of town are visiting. “Oh, so then you like to show off your museums—look, here’s my museum, I come here all the time!” One woman mentions that she goes to the National Portrait Gallery once a week. “Be sure to write that down, ‘Jenny goes once a week’”, Cecily tells our show’s ethnographer, who happens to be sitting next to me, and who I later find out is a diplomat from France. We’re both taking notes, and he’s struggling to keep up. At times I catch him sneaking glances at my notepad to double-check if he transcribed something correctly. It’s evident we’re both taking our jobs very seriously.
Cecily and Gwendolyn have a wicked radar for pretense. They are quick to sniff out the day to day pomp that most of us in the District have put on so long it doesn’t even seem like a conscious effort, but they do it so innocently that it never becomes vicious. At one point, a man brags about being a member of the National Museum of the American Indian, and of course Cecily and Gwendolyn go to town on him. “Oh, now you’re an official scholar!” Gwendolyn asks the man to tell the audience some unknown fact about American Indians. The man utters some obscure factoid about tribal translations of the Bible that appears to be untrue. Both Cecily and Gwendolyn ask more and more detailed follow-up questions—asking about Indian boarding schools and the like. After a while, it’s apparent that these actresses know their stuff, and the man perhaps doesn’t.
It’s a testament to the randomness of Cecily and Gwendolyn’s Fantastical that I forget exactly how the conversation transitions from museums to sex. At one point, we find out, through a show of hands, that most of the audience were educated about sex in public schools. Gwendolyn zeroes in on a woman who says she attended an all-girls Catholic school. “They told us that every time we had sex, we lost a part of our soul,” she explains. “Like Lord Voldemort?” asks Cecily, completely deadpan. “Aren’t you gaining a piece of the other person’s soul in return?” asks an audience member cheekily. I think it’s fair to say at that point, I was hooked.
Here are some parting words of advice for an unparalleled Cecily and Gwendolyn’s Fantastical experience: Bring a witty, diverse and talkative group of friends. Leave the wallflowers at home. Imbibe in a cocktail or two, and arrive with an open mind and prepared to engage with the actors and the audience.
Be prepared to learn more about the world, this city, and yourself. The conversation is quick to lean towards the controversial—along with museums and sex, we also discussed religion and the role of the media. I found myself becoming increasingly curious about how a Cecily and Gwendolyn’s Fantastical plays out in the several other cities Getz and Jennings have bought their show to. How do people in Minnesota or New Orleans handle talking about their cultural attitudes towards sex with a pair of Victorian anthropologists donning hoop skirts?
“We have discovered that the denizens of the capitol are multi-personality,” said Cecily in the duo’s Youtube conclusion of a show done earlier in the week. “They work very hard to maintain and balance these sort of facades—and also these varied and very complex opinions about hot-button issues because in this very multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-ethnical environment of the city, you never know which position you can be, or where you might be where you can offend people.
And so they’re always sort of being…inoffensive,” concludes Gwendolyn about the District’s residents. Cecily finishes with this eye-opening statement: “Also, they say, they could also be living characters from video games.”
Cecily and Gwendolyn’s Fantastical … has 5 shows, ending July 29, 2012, The Shop at Fort Fringe, 607 New York Ave NW, Washington , DC.
Amrita rates this 5 out of a possible 5, making it a Pick of the Fringe!