Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 23, 2024

The Second Woman plays with theatrical convention

By ELIZA ZIMMERMAN | October 24, 2019

Daniel Benavides/ CC BY 2.0 Alia Shawkat performed a set of lines 100 times in “The Second Woman.”

You probably know Alia Shawkat from her role as Maeby Fünke in Arrested Development — the quick-witted, opportunistic teenager who is the only character that has the slightest idea of what’s going on. Or you may know her from her starring role in Search Party, a genre-bending, satirical murder-mystery TV show. 

There’s a high likelihood that you’ve never seen Shawkat’s face unless you stepped into the dark box of the Brooklyn Academy of Music theater on October 18 to see her perform 100 scenes with 100 men over the course of 24 straight hours. 

Shawkat, behind the painted lips, cotton-candy blonde bob wig and oversized red dress with matching shoes, is impossibly close to the audience (you can brush past her on your way to and from your seat) but also vastly distant. 

She moves behind a gossamer curtain that casts a faint pink haze over her limbs and the constructed living room space she has been stranded in 24 hours by the end of the performance. Yes, you may not know her at all, but you somehow become her as you are lulled into her perspective through the repetition of the piece.

The Second Woman is a theater piece by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon. Itfirst debuted in Australia and then moved on to Taiwan before coming to New York City. It is a meticulous and conscientious piece that plays with expectations of amateur and the rules of theater. 

In each location, local actors and industry workers are recruited to accompany the lead, whom they don’t meet until they open the door and their scene begins. 

The camera operators who are hired identify either as female or non-binary, ensuring that the guiding eye of the projection next to the stage remains centered in the experience of these identities, even as the focus of the piece changes from one romantic interest to the next (most of whom are male). 

The audience moves in and out between scenes, staying for as long or short as they like, revolving in and out for the entire day. The world builds itself around the consistency of the main character, and when the time comes, it is ready for Shawkat to operate.

Each scene lasts five to 10 minutes. A new man comes in from the door, approaches the woman’s vigil in the corner, and whispers into her ear. The dialogue begins, same as last time — they’re sorry they were so crude, but she shocked them — each time with subtle variance. 

By the time I’ve watched three of these skits play out, I can tell where the improvisation is intentional and where the lines slip as the two dance around each other, figuratively and literally. The audience begins to intuit a backstory and wonder at the relationship, integrating themselves and their perspectives into the fabric of the performance. 

When the men leave, the camera operators who have been recording the entire sequence return to a bench, and the screen projector next to the stage clicks off. The woman on set cleans up. 

The audience resets. You experience this release with her, finishing the dregs of this interaction, gears grinding to a halt. Sometimes, the scene is funny and lighthearted — you’re sad it’s over but buoyed by your own private laughter — and sometimes it’s serious or stilted and you see yourself in Shawkat, collecting yourself, tightening loose strings for the next scenario. 

As you’re integrated into the intricacies of the scene, you step into her. You begin to anticipate and dread the next arrival, begin to count her dwindling number of clean glasses, begin to meet her calm gaze at the end of every sequence as she stands in the corner looking up. 

You want the men to be good, to be carefree and flow with Shawkat’s character, you want the interaction to be comfortable. You want them to leave when she’s done with them. 

You hope they don’t leave too much mess but also enjoy the extended solitude of the transition, the chance to breathe without worrying about the next conversation, the next line, the next joke to quip off of. 

The impossibility of knowing what is going on inside Shawkat’s mind, the “why” behind the driving force of the script, makes the experience that much more dynamic. 

The Second Woman is a subtle meditation — on gender dynamics, routine, aesthetics and social roles, on the ways we familiarize ourselves with our lives, the group versus the individual, and how what surrounds us defines us. 

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