Photo courtesy of Lovers & Madmen

A wheel of cheese, a jester and a pregnant woman were the last things I expected to see while watching With Woman. But I guess I should have saved my surprise for later – that came after the play.

The play is an original work written by Communication second-year Shai Bardin and directed by Communication second-year Leo Kurkland. It was one of three projects featured in the annual Lovers & Madmen AdaptFest, or Adaption Festival, which showcased staged readings of plays written and directed by students. Sisterhood and Vikram & Betal were the other two productions in the festival, Since I only watched With Woman, I will be discussing Bardin’s work.

The play only ran for 45 minutes, but it felt twice as long. This wasn't due to bad pacing, but the amount of content. With Woman is a satire set in 1554 during the reign of Queen Mary I of England. The play presents vignettes of multiple characters’ lives, but the main plot focused on the Midwife, whose failure to deliver babies leads her down a rabbit hole of shame and guilt. Moments spent with two male scientists who explore the solar system (and each other’s bodies) raise questions about what a family looks like. A Ma, Mum, Queen Mary herself, the Patient and the Midwife all explore the lunacy of misogynistic thinking and the faculties of menstruators' bodies in both the early modern period and the present.

The best way I can describe the acting in the show is true commitment to the bit. Weinberg and Communication second-year Anne-Sophie Lacombe Garcia, who played Mum and Adam, worked well with Communication first-year Nora James Eikner and her characters Ma and Steve. In their performance, they made clear distinctions between the characters they played and had great chemistry with each other. Despite them breaking character to laugh in some scenes, It was a strength rather than a detriment.

During the show, I sat near Bardin and Kurkland, and I enjoyed seeing their reactions to the play. It seemed like they were laughing out of surprise as the actors truly made the work their own.

Bardin’s writing and Kurkland’s directorial choices made space for the actors to lean into the humor of the play. For instance, the Midwife, her husband, and the Patient’s husband had a cup of tea, but the scene went on for a while, with each actor slurping loudly from their imaginary cups. Several scenes felt similar to this one, where they went on for an uncomfortable amount of time, but still drew a laugh out of the audience.

Although each actor contributed to the work, I felt that second-year Nicole Streger, who played Patient and Queen Mary the First, and Haley Bart, who played the Midwife were standout performances. Where the moms and husbands added comedic elements, Streger and Bart colored each line with a sharp edge and grounded the play in real pain, helping to re-center the message within the throes of a bizarre plot.

Despite the absurdity of some of the lines and choices, Bardin presents an unpredictable plot with clever word play. In the small audience of a 2 p.m. show, I saw people leaning over to explain jokes to the person they came with. Other times, there would be a delayed laugh in the crowd as someone finally caught onto a joke. Humor is one of Bardin’s strengths, featuring quick, quip-like comedy in some lines while opting for crass, blunt jokes in other moments.  

The costumes and “set” neither added nor took away from the performance. The beige, neutral-toned outfits put the focus on the actors’ movements and only subtly nodded to the play’s setting in the 1500s with crochet and knit-wear pieces. Given it was Harris 107, most of the set was up to the imagination of the audience and the performance of the actors to work in tandem to create. There were drawings on the chalkboard that were a nice detail to try and determine which aspects connected to the play, with phrases like “Scary, Pussy!” and a stick figure with the caption “Redhead.”

With Woman left me feeling unsettled, yet content. It's always nice to see passionate creators who truly love their craft have fun with an original piece for a small audience. I laughed, I cringed and I can’t wait to see what the next Northwestern show has in store for me.