#bros: Touching the Glass Ceiling of the Masculine Woke

Any work of satire can become a work of truth. Like water in a plastic tray becomes ice cubes in a freezer, the final nature and meaning of a play inexorably depends on its surrounding environment, with fluid parody shifting noiselessly to crystalline sociologic description without one dot of ink having changed in the script. And when the societal temperature is just right, there can exist a slushy intermediate, where the hypothetical blurs the real and today’s caricature repeats as tomorrow’s headline. This, then, is the dark world of #bros, theater so matched to its encompassing cultural moment that it feels like stepping into old bathwater, the filthy and obvious external somehow extending out indistinguishably from what we thought was the reality of our own skin.

Written by Jake Jeppson, directed by Rose Oser, assistant directed by Allie Moss, illustration by Karen Loccisano

#bros (say it, “hashtag bros”) is the current 80-minute focus of FaultLine Theater, and the play continues the production house’s tradition of shining the brightest, most unflinching light that it can find on thorny contemporary issues. In this case, Janus-faced modern male feminism is on the chopping block, and no punches are pulled, either by writer Jake Jeppson or director Rose Oser.

The piece centers around a tight-knit team of six trendy, urbane men who “produce content” for an upstart media website, named “Sensitive Bros,” which has the stated mission of disseminating cultured, feminist, and generally woke Internet material to a discerning male audience that has evolved past the traditional masculine interest in objectifying, puerile schlock. These sensitive bros, however, are soon exposed to the slightest breeze of actual female opinion, and the masks come flying off; the dudes are radicalized right and left (but mostly right) by “cunts” and “bitches,” and what began as a noble liberal quest reveals its true nature, with insecure and rageful roots that extend deep down into the patriarchy.

As Jeppson chronicles this hateful transformation, he takes pains to show the dehumanizing toxicity that gender pressures impose on everybody. Some of the bros don’t even have names, for instance, and the script itself refers to them with various permutations of the epithet “dude”: Dude (Brennan Pickman-Thoon), Another Dude (Derek Jones), Head Dude (Ryan Hayes), Some Other Dude (Heren Patel), Quiet Dude (Jonathan Villaluz), and of course, the Dudest of the Dudes (Kevin Glass). The lone female on stage, Megan Wicks, gets the inevitable moniker of “Girl.”

The gentleman staffers of Sensitive-Bros.com #thisiswhatafeministlookslike (all photos by Clive Walker)

These titular abstractions don’t appear to be an attempt by Jeppson to suggest a universal equivalence between people in society, though, and there are abundant differences in power, morality, and social situation among the characters. The names, rather, point to the underlying nastiness of cultural roles and their tendency to promote factions and groupthink, especially in the vaunted “locker-room talk” of boys. When women are lumped into an anonymized, otherized feminine mass, no matter how respected and praised, all it takes is a slight shift of perspective for “Girl” to change quickly, and with a broad brush, into “Bitch.” And that is the poison sleeper cell in the collective male mind that women are right to fear.

In #bros, Dude (Pickman-Thoon) takes a shine to Girl (Wicks) when he orders coffee from her at a local coffee shop. While she asks about drink size, he devolves internally into a full-on daydream in which they live out their lives together, including a subfantasy where their bond grows stronger as he comforts her at her mother’s funeral. Distasteful, but who among us hasn’t quietly played imaginary tragedy hero at some point? He wimps out on asking for her number, though, or maybe it’s that he chooses politely not to impose his base maleness on her; “Dude, it’s her place of work,” he later protests to his colleagues at Sensitive Bros.

The site is always in search of content, though, and Dude’s personal tale soon blows up into a corporate plan for a “#cyrano” social media campaign that encourages men to share what they really wanted to tell women but didn’t actually say. The same meeting also produces other ideas, including a plan for content around “23 chinchilla facts,” featuring advertising from “a bunch of ladies’ brands,” and a public health piece on anal fissures, with Dude’s boss, Head Dude (Hayes), ordering Dude to conjure “500 words on the time your ass bled” for the good of the company. Lancinating barbs like these weave regularly through the work, taking aim at the inhuman hungers of the Internet and its recent technocapitalism, with FaultLine again showing its commitment to no commentary but intersectional commentary.

Hashtagging the enemy
Girl (Megan Wicks) gets a taste of righteous hashtag justice, courtesy of a sensitive, hurt bro.

Against all odds, the lame #cyrano gambit works, and Girl and Dude go on a date. It is full of enough second-guessing and handwringing to make Seinfeld blush, though, as Dude worries constantly that he is not acting sufficiently enlightened. Girl somehow ignores this, and the night ends up in a quick and weird bedroom scene that provokes a misguided celebratory bro text about “sinking a battleship” and a female hope for “longer sex and less rhetoric” next time. The postcoital conversation gets progressively more unpleasant from there, as Dude thrashes like a hooked fish between the alternating pulls of shame and anger, first blaming himself and then, eventually, Girl. And then, eventually, girls. Angry dressing, followed by “YOU are the patriarchy” concludes the charmed evening, and battle lines are drawn.

Back at Bro headquarters the next day, the brain trust launches a retaliatory plan, with a “#justcuz” campaign aiming to get men to post things that they think women have gotten wrong about them “just because” they were male. A few cracks in the facade emerge, as one bro wonders if this might be straying into misogyny, but Head Dude quashes that fear quickly: “It’s not, because we’re not.” Checkmate; you can’t be racist if you say that you’re not a racist, and you can’t be misogynistic if you say that you’re a feminist, no matter what ideas you actually espouse. In the words of Head Dude, let those “lactating elephants” worry about it.

This moment in the play formed a tipping point. As the wounded bros sought to defend their pride, the social underbelly of the Internet slinked up to them in the guise of comrades in arms, slowly perverting the hashtag campaign into pure hate and the sensitive bro movement into a regressive nightmare. The bros still had the genteel lexicon, but they had begun to use it for vengefulness instead of respect.

Girl, Uninterrupted
Wicks performing the rarest of life’s monologues: “Girl, Uninterrupted”

Before long, Girl and Dude met at cafe loggerheads one final time, with femme dynamo Wicks delivering a heated monologue that clearly transcended memorized lines, piercing directly into the realm of heartfelt passion. At the time, it felt like she could have been channeling any woman’s seething, extemporaneous reaction to the morass of virgin-or-whore snarling male hatred that boils beneath all online media. She was baring her biggest teeth while still trying to walk the invisible, ever-present tripwire line that divides spoken argument from physical male violence, the threat always credible. When the dust settled, Dude retreated petulantly, sending out one last hashtagged dispatch: “#cuntalert.”

At this point, the lights went dark, and the hexagonal projection screens that form the majority of the #bros backdrop came to full life. A disquieting soundtrack bubbled up, and purposefully unflattering meme-style female pictures flashed across the stage, appearing and disappearing quickly and in large numbers, some famous and some personal, some small and some large, some black and some white, but all bearing the #cuntalert hashtag in bold block letters. Of all the vitriol in the play, this was the most unsettling. This was pure, unveiled, unbridled hatred, and the thing that turned my stomach was that I’d seen it before, for real on the Internet. This was the moment when the lukewarm bathwater fully lost its definition and I could no longer tell where the satirical sketch of hatred ended and the reality of our culture began.

It may sound like #bros hits its material too squarely on the nose, and maybe it does, but I’m not sure that it could exist in our current reality with its volume set any lower. Major domestic publications, after all, have recently taken to describing white nationalists as “dapper,” while these same grotesque monsters have homicidal white male followers who openly display Nazi apparel. Frankly, #cuntalert may have been the least direct rhetorical device that Jeppson and Oser could find to examine the events that are actually happening around us right now. When the president is a miscreant who, in his own words, grabs women nonconsensually “by the pussy” yet still wins election, I’m not sure how theater can be expected to find a satirical note that is also subtle. Given this reality, I prefer the no-holds-barred approach of #bros.

Dudes Duding
Dude (Brennan Pickman-Thoon) and his friend, Another Dude (Derek Jones) share a tender moment.

In the midst of all of these swirling issues, #bros also finds space to examine a crosscutting racial dynamic. Another Dude (Jones) is Dude’s best on-stage friend, and he happens to be black. Jones, now a FaultLine fixture, executes expertly on this pairing and doesn’t miss the opportunity to turn a few thoughtful screws on both himself and oblivious white culture in his characteristic equanimous way. A few of his character’s lines seem overloaded, like those from dinner with his white girlfriend’s family (“Her aunt brought up jungle fever, and I just sat there in my polo shirt like the little bitch I am”), but there are plenty of more subtle meditations on race that work well, including a complexly portrayed reaction to a callous comment from Dude about black people who seem to switch between two cultures. The net effect is additive, even as the material fights for space in an already crowded social dialogue.

#bros also sees FaultLine make a significant investment in mixed media, with several well-done video segments interleaving among the acted scenes. These recorded pieces bring to life the fever-dream content plans that we hear discussed by the Sensitive Bros (girls and chinchillas! penises posed in high heels!), and their convincing attention to detail further smudges the borders between art and reality. Fast, vlogger-style camera cuts combine with trendy topics to form bits that are indistinguishable from actual clickbait material, and it’s not hard to imagine some cousin of BuzzFeed publishing them without any editing.

As the pitch of the play increases, the journalistic approach of the Sensitive Bros dives ever faster into the cynical and exploitative. Head Dude begins to wear a suit, and any pretense of respect for the nuances of gender in society is traded wholesale for page views. Background whiteboards seen in videos fill with hip nonsense brainstorming, like “cheetos -> racism” and “diabetes -> kale,” and the group grasps at anything that might help it become the top destination for “male-centric” Internet content.

The #bros set
Hexagonal projection panels create a great effect, if you’re into disturbing visual journeys of self-reflection (cruddy photo definitely not by Clive Walker)

A vicious group dynamic emerges from this, sustaining itself with the voluntary backing of the more immoral bros and the coerced support of the others, as they fear for their jobs and their fragile masculine standing. This culminates in the filming of a supposed comedy video that could instead feature directly in A Clockwork Orange, and the play reaches its second apex of visceral disgustingness.

#bros puts the destructive effects of gender and greed on full display, and it intentionally provides no easy resolution to its own issues. Girl and Dude do not patch things up, and their final scene features Dude still not understanding boundaries or even his own prior transgressions. The play, ultimately, attempts to map the nebulous edges of a toxic male liberalism, that snakelike strain of self-serving hunger that hides imperceptibly among our better angels, so quietly enmeshed in us that we may not even know its presence. It whispers in silver tongues, reassuring us of our own virtue, soothing us against the wounds of our enemies. And we are then its willing prisoners within invisible walls, touching but never surpassing the glass ceiling of the masculine woke while forever failing to see its limits.

#bros is playing at PianoFight in SF’s tenderloin through mid-November (all shows at 7:30pm). Tickets here.

  • Fri, Oct 27
  • Sat, Oct 28
  • Thu, Nov 2
  • Fri, Nov 3
  • Sat, Nov 4
  • Thu, Nov 9
  • Fri, Nov 10
  • Sat, Nov 11
  • Thu, Nov 16
  • Fri, Nov 17
  • Sat, Nov 18

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