Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Austin D. Oie.
Considering that, at one point near the climax of Red Tape Theatre’s Queen of Sock Pairing, an overflowing toilet in an upstairs bathroom dumps globs of oozing brown waste onto the stage, it’s a good thing that Sophie Weisskoff’s play is actually provocative, bizarre, and inventive enough to fend off the obvious nasty review that would call it a “shitty play.” In fact, though the main character’s life is enough of a mess that the literal toilet humor is actually an apt metaphor, her nonstop efforts throughout the piece to gain some control over that life allow for some honest-to-god moments of self-discovery.
Elena Victoria Feliz, last seen as Paul in Red Tape’s outstanding adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, plays Celia, a writer who labels herself a “maker” but is having a serious dry spell in which she can’t create a thing. She hires herself out to the wealthy Jane (Brenda Scott Wlazlo) as a babysitter for her son Walden, played by Scot West wielding a sock puppet. (West does double duty as the boy’s father Jonathan, who is estranged from Jane and sees his son rarely.) Two other characters are Celia’s sexually adventurous older boyfriend Cai (Aaron Latterall) and a Narrator portrayed by Jalyn Greene who gives voice to the poetry and story stuck inside of Celia’s mind.
Directed by Zach Weinberg on a three-location Nick Schwartz set that forces the audience right into the action, Queen of Sock Pairing is not always the easiest play to follow. In order to make some sense of her frustrating life and figure out what she actually wants from it, Celia and Cai role play scenes both from her daily life and her sexual fantasies, which involve some seriously kinky stuff that Weisskoff seems hell-bent on normalizing as part of the private lives of consenting adults. (At one point, the disheartened Cai tells Celia that they can just engage in “vanilla sex” if she can’t make up her mind, and it is clear that neither one would be satisfied that way.) Weinberg clearly has worked hard to differentiate the various roleplays from reality, but it’s hard when the play often only alerts us to them when they are over.
Note: this is NOT a play for kids by any stretch of the imagination. There is more graphic discussion of (non-vanilla) sexual activities here than I think I’ve ever heard in a play, and that’s saying something.
The acting is top-notch. Feliz is brilliant as a young woman trying desperately to find out where she fits, seeking real agency in her life even while enjoying the “sub” role in the bedroom. That she is so utterly likable as a performer enables us to sympathize with her from the outset, no matter what kinds of kink she is into. Greene’s role is both an observer and a kind of inner voice making clear and commenting on the turmoil in Celia’s head. Once the audience becomes used to her presence, the Narrator’s function morphs to include saving Celia from moments that might otherwise overwhelm her emotionally exhausted brain. Latterall is sharp and undeniably appealing as Cai, though the character is an unabashed dom who at one point proclaims that he beats women, but only when they ask for it by saying, “Please, Sir, I want you to hurt me.” Celia manages to get out a “Please Sir…” before the subject changes.
Both Wlazlo and West have a great time as the family who employs Celia. Wlazlo is the society woman who intentionally over-articulates every word she says and who maintains that Celia is a part of her family while reserving the right to call her an “employee” any time she is displeased with her. As the indeterminately-aged Walden, West has fun playing the child through the puppet, while as the father he presents both a mystery and an alternative to Cai for Celia, whose only admonition about him from Jane is not to let him into the house. (You can guess how well that goes.)
Queen of Sock Pairing is a deceptively vanilla title for such a sexually aggressive piece of work. The implication is that you never know what might be happening behind closed doors, even in the seemingly most unlikely of places, and that whatever is happening between consenting adults is perfectly fine. As Celia seamlessly slips between domestic moments and blatantly erotic dialogue, it’s easy to see it all as a part of one person. It’s also easy to see that everything that happens or doesn’t happen to her becomes part of the fodder for her writing, which (with luck) she will unlock before much longer. There are no solid and absolute endings here—indeed, the audience on my night did not even realize that the play had ended—but that’s pretty real also. We, who are the sum of our experiences, spend much of our time trying to figure ourselves out with no real guarantee that we ever will succeed. At least Celia is totally open about her needs and able to articulate them, unlike most of us, who are more likely to shut ourselves up within the mundanity of daily life and never really know our capabilities.
Queen of Sock Pairing is a Red Tape Theatre production now playing at The Ready, 4546 N. Western Ave, Chicago, IL, until Dec 14. The show runs 90 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.