The title is a dead giveaway. On the surface Pleiades appears to be a play about seven sisters from a wealthy American family summering in the Hamptons. It’s the kind of family that produces debutantes, although a few of the sisters are souring on the concept. That’s because it’s 1971, and the sisters are getting clued in to feminism, some more enthusiastically than others.
But on another level these seven sisters are also the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades, who became the star cluster of the same name in Greek mythology. Nymphs or minor goddesses, they’re the daughters of the Titan Atlas (you know, the guy who holds the heavens on his shoulders) and the sea-nymph Pleione. In local playwright Marissa Skudlarek’s drama, the legendary Maia, Electra, Taygete, Alcyone, Celaeno, Sterope and Merope become the Attlee sisters: Moira, Elaine, Teresa, Alison, Kelly, Sarah and Meredith, respectively.
The mythic content is a lot more than just an in-joke for the well read. It’s the play’s reason for being. Pleiades was written for the 2011 San Francisco Olympians Festival, an annual staged reading festival of plays by local writers about characters from Greek mythology. (Full disclosure: I’ve also participated in SF Olympians as a playwright, last year and again this year.) Now the play comes to fruition in its fully staged world premiere, courtesy of No Nude Men Productions at San Francisco’s small Phoenix Theatre.
It all takes place on and around the back porch of the sisters’ summer home, which looks humbly shack-like in Jennifer Varat’s simple but effective set. The first impression when you see all the sisters assembled is that seven really is a lot. And indeed, the play seems to scarcely have room for them all, or at least for them all to have something to do. And it can’t help but take a long time to begin keeping all the characters straight.
Soon a few of them begin to distinguish themselves. Moira (Susannah Lee) is the prim and proper eldest sister, haunted by past mistakes and taking on a maternal role in the absence of their parents. (The folks are occasionally referenced but mysteriously absent.) Annabelle King’s Alison is surly and combative, lying around reading Sylvia Plath when she’s not storming around in a huff.
Teresa (Monica Ammerman) is a budding feminist who’s stronger on theory than on practice, all too aware that she’s lived a sheltered life and has never really suffered. Amy Nowak’s self-satisfied Elaine couldn’t be less interested in all that stuff, because she’s in love with a big, strong and similarly upper-class man -- the sisters' neighbor, Bruce (played by Paul Rodrigues as skin-crawlingly smarmy and insensitive). The trouble is, Elaine isn’t the first one of the sisters that Bruce has seduced and may not be the last.
The younger sisters don’t play much of a role, although Kailah Cayou occasionally pipes in with innocent but precocious insights as Meredith, the youngest. Meanwhile, Sarah (Emily Ludlow) and Kelly (Miranda Hanrahan) mostly hang around sunbathing and being lied to about what’s really going on.
The sly mythological references just keep coming, some subtle and others very, very obvious. At the beginning of the play, one of the sisters says, “Debutantes, like stars, come out at night.” It’s not hard to decipher which goddess is the model for cousin Diane (Erika Bakse) -- a militant feminist who comes to lead the sisters in a consciousness-raising tea party -- especially when she starts talking about growing up in the shadow of her golden-boy twin brother, Paul, or when she recounts her revenge on the guy who dared to spy on her skinny-dipping. The indicators for Bruce are less obvious, at least unless you know the Pleiades myth pretty well, but you’re given enough hints to figure out who he represents.
There’s a soap-operatic quality to the show early on, particularly in the rather blunt revelations of one sister’s happy secret and another’s unhappy one (which are pretty much the same thing). There are a number of clever lines throughout: “Yes, I am sexually frustrated, if you mean frustrated by my sex,” Teresa says in one of many discussions about feminism.
By the time things take a dark turn in the second act, director Katja Rivera’s unhurried staging has done its work and you can’t help but be totally involved in the story when you might least want to be. And in a play that’s so much about an awakening to the women’s movement as the new thing (or at least new to the Attlee sisters), the end drives home in a sobering, infuriating way just how desperately the movement is needed.
Pleiades runs through August 30, 2014 at the Phoenix Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit pleiadessf.wordpress.com.
All photos by Serena Morelli.