The lights at the Contemporary Arts Center shone brightly Wednesday night, but the mood was dark in The Factory, a multimedia work that revisits the continuing struggle for women’s rights. Kim Popa and Lindsey Jones, who co-wrote, directed and choreographed The Factory for their dance company from Fort Thomas, spread their work over three performance areas in the downtown museum.
While the mistreatment of women was given significant focus by John Stuart Mills in his 1869 essay, “The Subjection of Women,” it is lamentable that a work like “The Factory” still remains highly relevant today, despite the work of the Betty Friedans, Gloria Steinems and Michael Kemmels. We only have to look at the sexism permeating the 2008 presidential campaign if we doubt why The Factory conjures up substantial vitality.
The performance has the audience start in the CAC’s below-street-level black box theater, beginning with an academic lecture on evolution and its components — anatomy, psychology, pedigree, behavior and chemistry. While an actor at a lectern pontificates on these components of evolution, a quintet of dancers demonstrates his points with herky-jerky, automaton-like movements that include stiff-leg walks, bobbing of heads and angular arm positions. At the end, the dancers, on all fours, lap dog-like at bowls of a liquid that is supposed to be a mysterious “secret ingredient.” Their intake of the liquid results in the manifestation of empty smiles on their faces.
Outside, in the theater lobby, a mini-operetta ensues involving the Factory’s CEO Mr. Washington (the excellent actor-director Mark Hardy) and his assistant Betty (Samantha Wright), dressed in a French maid’s abbreviated uniform and heels, elevating her high enough to require an oxygen mask. Their routine satirically establishes how Betty is more valuable as a sexual object than as a leader of the company in charge of exploiting women and robbing them of their identity.
The audience (numbering about 75 for Wednesday’s first performance) is moved efficiently upstairs via the CAC’s freight elevator to the street lobby, which becomes the ad department. Two performers, skimpily dressed in lacy bras, panties and hose with garters right out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog, hold a clothesline from which hang glamour photos. We understand that The Factory produces glamorous but soulless women.
A telling duet ensues. (The dancers are not identified in this cast of 30-plus.) The male and female dancer move about the lobby holding Plexiglas panels that symbolize the glass ceiling in a woman’s workplace. The woman eventually ends up prone on the floor, encased by the panels, like an urban Snow White in a casket restricting her opportunities.
(Photo: Steve Depenning)
Another chilling section is one in which instructor Betty indoctrinates five little girls who move stoically to the sound of a ticking metronome. They respond to Betty’s bidding with a little inattention, but no rebellion.
Back in the black box theater, a training film is shown. A narrator with a vacuous smile tells women employees of The Factory the dos and don’ts of behavior when one of them is sexually harassed. With a malevolent charm, the narrator suggests they submit to their predator bosses if they want to get ahead in this company.
The final dance brings a chorus of women on stage. In fragmentary speeches, they show confusion and conflict as they seek self-identity. Although this scene is meant to suggest women struggling to summon power for direction in their lives, the writing here is without sharpness and mostly too oblique to make the point effectively.
— Jerry Stein