Gender, as a concept, is a lot like a springform jello dessert: It seems solid from a distance, turns out to be slippery and sticky when you try to get a hold on it, and is believed by Baby Boomers to have been totally figured out back in the ’60s. The more you attempt to define and tighten your grasp on gender, the more its nuances escape between your fingers, and this guarantees that every simplistic, binary view of the subject will always be easy prey for thought experiments. In Where the Boys Are, the latest effort from FaultLine Theater, just such an exploration is undertaken, as the production house tugs the string on one delectably posed and beguilingly simple question: What would happen if all the men disappeared?
The premise of Where the Boys Are superficially appears straightforward, but it turns out to have an unexpectedly piquant depth that reveals its thorns slowly. While previous works by FaultLine have explored tricky what-if questions within subjects like global warming and death, the foundational postulates for these were always well-defined, which kept the narratives bounded. This time, in Boys, the action is more complex, as the starting gun sends ripples in two directions at once; across 80 intermissionless minutes, the events on stage must address not only what would happen in a world suddenly devoid of men but also what it means to be a man, and who qualifies as one.
The play, written by Vanessa Flores and directed in this staging by Kieran Beccia, features a cast of eight actors who, more or less, evenly share dramatic prominence, with no absolute divisions made between lead and supporting roles. Put reductively, all of the actors in the work present as female to at least some degree, but there is significant and important complexity to this, both within the actors personally and in the characters whom they inhabit. The show sometimes puts up guideposts for this, via pronoun choice or even outright discussion, but it also makes the subject increasingly and intentionally amorphous as the plot progresses, underscoring a broader message about gender itself. If you get a little lost, that may be part of the point.
As the play opens, Clementine (Eliza Boivin) and Mel (Leigh Rondon-Davis) are on their way to a baby shower, while Clem self-medicates her recent ghosting by beau Jonathan with a torrent of sad-sackery and dill-pickle potato chips. After some choice repurposed Backstreet Boys lyrics fail to console Clem, Mel calls an audible and pulls the car over for a pit-stop beer and therapy session at a bar helmed by friend Sarah, here played by Megan Wicks, who is reprising an oracular gender-probing role that she enacted dynamically in FaultLine’s #bros last fall. Meanwhile, pregnant Ashley (Carla Gallardo) is getting her shower started with an attendant coterie including Amanda (Ciera Eis), Heather (Kaitlyn Ortega), and Traci (Juliana Lustenader).
These opening bits of prologue quickly sketch a mostly traditional rendition of female gender issues, including babies and boy troubles, so that the show can swiftly make its jolting counterstep. The smell of an intense nearby fire invades the shower party, and nobody’s male significant other is reachable by phone. A news anchor (Lucianne Colón) comes on TV, filling in for her male counterpart who has gone missing, and as she attempts to interview her remote correspondent about the fire, they soon find out that all of the news-van men have evaporated, too. Indeed, the world at large quickly learns that all of its males have mysteriously disappeared, leaving only their clothes behind, and the play gets started in earnest.
In the initial aftermath of the male rapture, Boys makes use of some standard dystopian tropes, as its world fractures into factionalized “villages” of left-behind women. Fear and suspicion run rampant, with nobody knowing exactly what happened, and there is a wide spectrum of reactions among the world’s women. Some pine for their lost ones, while others investigate increasingly desperate sexual options during a potentially interminable dry spell, and still others prep for the possible return of men. In the latter camp, militarized groups like NOPE (“Not One Penis Ever”) arise, dedicating themselves to a standard of female purity and power.
It is through their depictions of these reactions to the disappearance of men that Flores and FaultLine most effectively deliver their examinations of gender. Sometimes the study is more lighthearted and meant as comic relief, such as when Amanda brings a male mannequin rollerskating and it attracts a jackal-like pack of interested women that she must angrily shoo off, wheels clacking and spinning. More often, though, the scenes contain important gravity. Of particular note are the explorations of what it means to be a man; is it determined by chromosomes, genitalia, personal identity, sexuality, some combination of these, or something else entirely? Groups like NOPE in the play base their answer on physical characteristics, and this philosophy, delivered with bats in hand, has loud echoes of the actual ongoing fights between some feminists and transgender women.
Determining who “belongs” and who counts as a “good woman” become touchstone considerations as the male absence continues. Some villages tell their members to report people who seem like they may not be true women, while whispers begin to spread that certain people have been intermittently disappearing. We learn that Mel is among this group of sometime vanishers, a cohort that may occupy a more complex, non-binary gender, or perhaps one that is agender altogether. The metaphorical device of periodic disappearance in the play functions well to probe the blurry edges of male and female identity in our society, and it brings to mind the colorful spectrum of sliders on the gender unicorn, in all its descriptive complexity.
Off the stage, Mel’s actor, Leigh Rondon-Davis, uses they/them pronouns, and you get the sense that Mel would, too, though it isn’t directly stated in the script. Perhaps supported by this salutary alignment, Rondon-Davis cuts an effortless course through gender in Boys, quietly displaying a diverse cornucopia of beliefs and actions that register as prototypically male just as often as they do female or, sometimes, neither. Their presentation is vaguely androgynous but not forced, and the overall performance is a hymn to the idea that non-binary gender is itself a complex entity that is not necessarily defined either by a mix of traditional genders or by an entirely genderless state.
Mel confides in Sarah that they have been disappearing, possibly due to a non-binary identity or even an emerging transgender one, and Sarah asks if they know where the boys are. Mel doesn’t, saying instead that their experience of the absences is like being “on a train with jazz music,” but apparently not one that contains any men or other people. It’s left unclear whether this is because of Mel’s non-binary gender or something else entirely, and we never get an answer on where the boys have gone. Perhaps they have stopped existing entirely, or perhaps the disappearance itself was always a veiled construct to demonstrate that a pure form of gender doesn’t exist. In the absence of men, women filled all of the traditional male roles, both good and bad, peaceful and violent, constructive and destructive; did the men actually disappear at all?
As the play ends, Mel again appears to be transcending, while the recognizable beginning of the song Iko Iko fills the theater: “My grandma and your grandma were sitting by the fire. My grandma told your grandma, I’m gonna set your flag on fire.” Those words were written long ago for the grudges between tribes of Mardi Gras Indians, but in Boys they scan as an explicitly gendered metaphor for internecine female conflict, especially as it affects people who are transgender or who don’t identify as a pure expression of either male or female. Sometimes the bitterest disputes are among those who otherwise have much in common, and while this lamentable and paradoxical tendency is shared by all humans, Boys deftly illuminates it along the lines of gender.
Notably, the music in Where the Boys Are is universally excellent and used to great effect. Beginning with the pre-show soundtrack, musical director and arranger Carl Oser establishes a palette of doo-wop, soul, and barbershop, and he and director Beccia weave this continuously throughout the production from wire to wire, on many occasions through the explicit, diegetic performances of the actors themselves. Renditions of songs like “I Will Survive” and “Come Go with Me” meld in and out of scenes, sometimes emanating from brave solo voices and other times in four-part a cappella harmonization. Between the rollerskating, the singing, and the acting, it’s hard to imagine how trying auditions for this version of Boys must have been, so hats off to the actors who are putting it on.
It’s also worth mentioning that the play is legitimately funny at many times, despite its high-gravity mission. There is comedy built into the script itself, such as when one woman tries to hawk “artificial, man-made sperm,” causing another to quip that she thought it always was man-made, and then there are also deeper laughs that come from some of the individual deliveries. Kaitlyn Ortega deserves special note here, for her performances as half of two duos: beleaguered remote correspondent to Colón’s straight-man newscaster, and puckish friend to Lustenader’s good-girl Traci. Colón and Lustenader execute their setups perfectly, and Ortega drives the humor home with savvy timing and charisma. Ciera Eis also changes hats regularly to contribute a vaudevillian smile between more dour discussions, a role that earns her both laughs and the official billing of “Dildo Lady” in the show’s press packet. Where the Boys Are could work as an entirely somber think piece, but its lighter touches are certainly additive and make it a more relatable and enjoyable experience.
When the nonexistent curtains close on the stage, ringed nearly circumferentially by the audience in an intimate circular blackbox configuration designed by Noah Kramer, the boys are still nowhere to be found. Nothing has been solidly learned about gender, either, which is a fitting parallel and likely the only accurate thing that can be said confidently on the subject in general. Every apparent hard truth about gender, every set of criteria developed to define people based on it, every notion of a prescriptive, immutable binary; they all fail against the observed and inarguable diversity that is readily apparent in the world. From the complex biology of gender to its equally intricate psychological and cultural underpinnings, it is a phenomenon which may not actually exist at all, appearing to us instead only as the accidentally emergent effect of numerous tendencies and patterns that we take for granted, a set of convenient shortcuts that we use to approximate the common case but which tell us nothing about reality or human potential. Like a pareidolic face seen in a doorknob, the very concept of gender may be nothing but an illusion drawn onto the world by our overactive, heuristic-driven brains, and maybe where the boys are…is both nowhere and everywhere.
Catch the gender-bending all-singing, all-skating menagerie of Where the Boys Are at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, in its Rueff blackbox, through this Saturday only. Get your tickets here for the remaining dates:
- Thursday, 8/16 @ 8pm
- Friday, 8/17 @ 8pm
- Saturday, 8/18 @ 8pm
This was my first time seeing a FaultLine production outside of PianoFight, and the experience had pluses and minuses. The show occurred, in part, thanks to A.C.T.’s Artshare Program, which provides no-cost rehearsal and performance space, as well as other support, to arts organizations, and that is an unqualified great community contribution from A.C.T. Its Strand Theater is also a wonderful artistic presence in mid-market San Francisco, with a pristine white metallic neo-opera-house interior that features attractive design touches like protruding, open-air mezzanine overlooks and a well-appointed minimalist cafe.
I did miss the rathskeller, bohemian appeal of PianoFight, however, with its multiple active stages and vivacious crowd. The Strand is a bit more of a high-brow, curated experience, which is by no means bad, but it just wasn’t 100% my exact jam. For important bonus points, though, its cafe does turn into a cocktail bar for showtime, and they let you bring your drinks into the theater. You’re okay by me, Strand, and the manhattan that you made me was legitimately awesome. So was the scotch that I smuggled in my jacket and that you didn’t hassle me about.
Hmm, maybe the Strand is my jam, after all.
Disclaimer: I got free tickets to this show, but I did pay for my manhattan, coffee, and scotch, so at least my reviews of those are potentially unbiased.