Available Light Theatre presents feminist call to arms

You don't get revolution by following the rules. That, in a nutshell, is the approach British playwright Alice Birch took when she created the manifesto-as-stage-play “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.”

And when Available Light Theatre presents “Revolt” Jan. 11-27 at MadLab, the company will be holding a nightly revolution of its own, and asking the audience to consider its role in the uprising.

“The things that Alice Birch and this play are bringing attention to are nothing new,” said Eleni Papaleonardos, who directs for AVLT. “The way she's looking at it, the way she asks an audience to look at it, the way she asks an ensemble to investigate it, makes them see it in a different way even though the conversation, the issues, the ideas are not new at all.”

To begin with, in only one of the play's four acts are lines of dialogue assigned to particular characters. The remainder of the play is scripted, but allows for companies and casts to assign lines to suit its production needs and message.

“As a director, I'm drawn to plays that have the room and allow the space to explore,” Papaleonardos said. “We're finding a lot out by just reading the play and [reassigning lines], changing who says what, and having that emerge based on whose voice [the lines] come into.”

“It has opened up a lot of potential to who can say what, which allows us to break open or break down what words mean,” said dramaturg and choreographer Michael Morris. “Seeing how unmoored the text is from particular persons or bodies gives us the opportunity to play with or disrupt how words take on meaning.”

That freedom also allows a cast to capitalize on Birch's unsettled, unsettling structure. For example, each of the four scenes in the first act begins “like a very realistic narrative and then completely unhinges and unravels and gets out of control — and then the scene ends,” Papaleonardos said. “Then the next scene starts and we think we know where it's going and then it comes apart.”

“There's a little bit of ‘Whoa!' again and again,” she added. “As a cast, we had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Birch uses this unraveling to invert the way “Revolt” allows audiences to consider systems of oppression and the manners in which they are reinforced.

“There is a lot of potent feminist potential” in the play, Morris said. Morris, who teaches in the departments of Dance and Women's and Gender Studies at Denison University, and who identifies as genderqueer, considered their role to investigate “ways this could be actualized in the production.”

“Eleni and I felt it would be short-sighted to stay in the realm of shallow feminism, but rather wanted to address more than just women or gender as we know it, and to be prepared to challenge all systems of oppression, domination and exploitation,” Morris said.

“Feminism is a tricky word,” Papaleonardos said. “What we don't have is an encounter with feminism that focuses solely on the binary. [The play] is sometimes very straightforward but other times it becomes this collage, this chaos, this cacophony of all of those restrictions and oppressions that are encountered daily.”

Morris' choreographic work creates a similar purposeful inversion of motion throughout AVLT's production. While perhaps not adhering to traditional standards of choreography, Morris' minimalist movement structure indicates the significance or meaning of certain characters or bodies.

“The movement is not dictated by the text itself,” Morris said. “My response to the things I read in the play indicates then how I put bodies in motion in ways that mark out their territory of possibilities.”

The play's brief, one-minute fourth act ends with no resolution. This lack of resolution, both Papaleonardos and Morris suggested, is, then, a call for more revolution.

“The play is commanding us again and again to create revolution,” Morris said, “so we are resistant to resolution. By asking how do we refuse to settle down and accept things about how society must be, [it] creates, together with the cast and audience, a state of non-resolution. None of us get to leave the space without having to wrestle with these questions.”

“There are many different ways to rebel,” Papaleonardos said, adding that the play is not prescriptive about those ways. “None of these are the perfect answer. This is not the play that wraps it up in a nice little bow. It's a piece of theater that is not done.”