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THEATER REVIEW BLISS, or Emily Post Is Dead!
by Lauren Emily Whalen
2018-08-08

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Playwright: Jami Brandli

At: Athenaeum Theatre ( Studio One ), 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: $17-27; 773-935-6875 or AthenaeumTheatre.org . Runs through: Aug. 25

Teatime English crumpets, handmade red scarves, pills concealed in a Hoover bag—these are the talismans of Greek goddesses reincarnated as bored housewives and precocious teenagers in 1960 New Jersey.

And when a prophet comes to town in the form of a meek typist, how will everything change? BLISS ( or Emily Post is Dead! ) is an intelligent, fierce exploration of second-wave feminism interspersed with ancient legends. Anna Bahow's thoughtful yet brutal direction of Jami Brandli's world premiere ( simultaneously opening in Chicago, San Diego and Los Angeles ) sets a strong precedent for female-driven plays in the Me Too era.

No one expects to hear their own demise, but that's precisely what Cassandra ( Kaci Antkiewicz ) sets out to do. However, no one will listen. Maddy ( Alice Wu ) is preoccupied with her absentee spouse and making the perfect snack. Clementine ( Jamie Bragg ) is intent on leaving her husband for her doctor ( Jared Dennis, who also plays Apollo ). And Antonia ( Kellen Robinson ) dodges her abusive guardian while pining after a boy of another race. They all rely on Emily Post's advice, her etiquette edicts a shared language—but what happens when Post meets own fate and Cassandra's visions start coming true?

Having a sellable concept—Greek goddesses in sixties suburbia!—is one thing, but strong execution is quite another, and I've seen many plays without the latter. BLISS is a clear exception: Brandli's done her research on Clytemnestra, Medea, Antigone and Cassandra. As well as the general arcs, little touches abound: an ad for Antonia's uncle Creon's business, Clementine's elegy for her lost child, Maddy's struggle to hide her true self and follow every single invisible rule. Is it any wonder they turn to pharmaceuticals? As mediocre white man Apollo points out, Cassandra is a Black woman in a white society; as he infers, she's doomed to take on endless physical and emotional labor from everyone around her.

Only a few hiccups exist. Cassandra's less character and more plot device, while the other three women have rich inner lives. Also, Cassandra's prophecy of modern times—"a demagogue rises to power"—feels superfluous, and why would Antonia pick 2018 over any other year?

Despite Brandli's minor setbacks, she's broken through the "simpler time" nostalgia and created a candy-colored world with dark undertones that's still painfully relevant. Carrie Campana's costume design is both accurate and vibrant, with pastel housedresses to die for. Both Bragg and Robinson shine as young women on the verge, ultimately doomed but willing to sacrifice for love. Equal parts Real Housewives, Mad Men and myth, BLISS perfectly sums up today's dejected Hillary supporters, recovering assault survivors and persecuted women of color in one angry climactic line: "I am not your girl anymore!"


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