The Female Role Model Project Review: Exploring Female Identity Scientifically, Playfully, Pompously

“The Female Role Model Project” is a pioneering work of theater by a new company called Transforma, in which artists and scientists collaborate to explore attitudes about women, and questions of female identity. The 90 minute show, which is running at 3-Legged Dog Art and Technology Center through December 2, is a mad mix of tones and activities, from game-playing to storytelling to electroencephalogram analysis.  If it’s too uneven, abstruse, and ultimately too scattershot to work as a whole, “The Female Role Model Project” is an intriguing experiment, with moments that are engaging, entertaining, and just plain cool.

The piece begins with the four diverse female cast members introducing themselves one by one in opening monologues, offering background information (Tjasa Ferme: “I’m white, bisexual, 34, making less than $50.000 a year, a lot less. I’m the daughter of a rock star….”) and character analysis about themselves  (Gina Pemberton:  “I’m a socially awkward empath…”)

Shortly afterward, Tjasa (who’s credited with conceiving the piece) asks: “What is female? What does female even mean?” – and  calls the entire audience up on the stage to play a game. We are asked to come up with an English word, and walk to one side of the stage or the other depending on whether we see this word as male or female. There was a consensus on the first word, flower, with almost everybody lining up on the female side; the second, car, had almost everybody moving to the male side. But then the word “confusion” split actors and audience precisely in half.

After the game, “actual scientist” Phoebe Chen, one of the experts in front of computers along the right side of the stage, described for us some research on what she called “a word’s grammatical gender.” The word “key” is masculine in German; German speakers describe a key as being “hard, heavy, metal, jagged and serrated” while the same word is feminine in Spanish; Spanish-speakers describe it as “golden, intricate, lovely, shiny and tiny.”

That explanation went over far better than the one she delivered after the cast members (and some volunteers from the audience) donned portable EEG headsets for brain scans, as they told stories divided into three stages of life – childhood, teenage years, and adulthood. The brain waves were translated into vibrating lines of color projected onto the walls of the theater, and converted into spontaneous original music by sound designer Justin Mathews. Chen offered a neuroscientific interpretation of the brain waves.

Like many of the tech-heavy elements in the experimental productions at 3-Legged Dog, the neuro noodling in “The Female Role Model Project” is more impressive in its efforts than its results. I have little doubt that Transforma knows what it’s doing; one of its co-founders, Dr. Natalie Kacinik, is a cognitive neuroscientist at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center. But Chen’s scientific explanations were not presented clearly, carefully or conclusively enough for your average intelligent lay audience member — ok, for me — to grasp. (Example: “Research suggests that when women are engaged in emotional processing, compared to men, they have more inter-hemispheric synchrony (particularly in frontal areas), which was often seen here.” Yeah, so…?) Still, the squiggly lines of color and the electronic sounding music were fun.

Some non-technical segments were not as fun. Some were squirm-inducing, which might have been their point.

After asking for a volunteer from the audience, a (male) audience member judged a beauty contest. In each category he was asked his preference  — size of breasts, legs, beach body, height (tall or short?); darkness or lightness in skin tone. After each choice by the audience member judge,  the “winner” among the four performers told an anecdote or otherwise reflected on her own attitudes toward her physical attributes.

Then there was a parody panel discussion, with the performers impersonating Kim Kardashian, First Lady Melania Trump and Chinese movie star Fan BingBing, exploring their differing views on aging, sexuality, motherhood. The audience then voted on the view in each category with which they agreed.

The impersonations did not (to put it politely) show off any particular acting chops of the cast, who were always more interesting when they were playing themselves.

Take Meggan Dodd. In her introductory monologue, she had described herself as “I’m white, born in this country, heterosexual, and I’m 65 – which means I just qualified for my half-fare Metrocard, hurray.” It wasn’t until later, breaking character from her portrayal of Kim Kardashian, that she explained she had been Bureau Chief of the Manhattan DA’s office, but, when she became a mother, had stepped down from the position “to work three days a week… My career never recovered. But I had more time with my kids. I’d make the same decision today. So – it’s possible to combine motherhood and career, but not without sacrifice, and it’s not easy​​​​​​​.”

Out of the jumble that comprised “The Female Role Model Project” – from the playful and informal to the high-tech  lingo-laced mumbo jumbo to the half-hearted parody — it was these straightforward moments of candor that were the most effective.

The Female Role Model Project
Created by Tjasa Fermé
Directed and developed by Ana Margineanu
Cognitive neuroscientist: Natalie Kacinik
Devisers/performers: Tjasa Fermé, Meggan Dodd, Gina Simone Pemberton, and Yiqing Zhao.
Live neuroscientific interpretation by Shira Hanna Weiss and Phoebe Chen
Sound design by Justin Mathews, video design by John J.A. Jannone, light design by Ayumu Poe Saegusa

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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