A Two-Headed Feminist Play Turns Internal Monologues into Critical Dialogue
Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava's 'Mouthpiece' captures modern life from a female perspective, without limiting it to the female experience.
QuoteUnquote, illustration courtesy of Leah Fay Goldstein
A microphone and a bathtub set the stage for two women in matching white bodysuits, each representing a side of a woman’s personality and speaking to the modern experience without being didactic but certainly equal parts eye-opening and emotional. Cleverly titled, Mouthpiece really does act like a “mouthpiece,” overtly expressing one’s suppressed thoughts. You’ve thought it, now these two women are saying it. Unabashedly so.
Mouthpiece thrusts you into the moment when protagonist Cassandra Hayward is given word that her mother, Elaine, has died. As a writer, she has to pen the eulogy. But how will she deliver it, given she awoke to find that she’s lost her voice?
She’s unable to leave the bath to buy flowers. She’s unable to dress herself. She locks herself in a change room, in a bathroom. She hides in a pine box while picking out the casket. Over the course of the day, she has to determine not only what she’ll say about her mother and the woman she was, but also how she defines being a women herself. Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava, of the Quote Unquote Collective, are touring Mouthpiece again, currently in Toronto, ON, where they originally performed it in early 2015. For the audience to access and understand Cassandra’s thoughts, the play splits her in two, each performer becoming a half of her conflicted mind.
They sing and scream, occasionally erupting into nonsensical sounds. They alternately approach the microphone or are yanked from it; other times they stand side by side. They vamp it up, are vulnerable, angry, Amazonian, sensitive, indecisive and ashamed, embodying a gamut of female tropes. In a particularly hilarious moment, they invite two male audience members to the stage, the show’s only interruption, where Nostbakken is an over excitable, excessively thankful female host while the men do literally useless tasks.
Mouthpiece was originally slated to be about female relationships, but after a long research period, including three weeks in a yoga studio in the middle of “St. Clair and Nowhere” and a visit to Nostbakken’s family farm, the play evolved. They read Simone Beauvoir, Anne Sexton, and Sharon Olds. They watched a childhood favorite, Thumbelina. Mouthpiece moved further and further away from anything resembling an empty “#feminist” piece.
“We (made) choreography about two female friends, so close they know each other better than themselves. We learned facts about each other, had lists about size of feet, of waist, what she eats in the middle of the night when she’s drunk and comes home, memorized them. We showed an outside eye, who said, ‘This is garbage, this is nothing,’” explains Sadava. “Our realization was we first (needed) to know what a woman is. We started writing, (but) there’s still a tiny layer of hypocrisy, hiding. Then, the epiphany - we’re not feminists, we’re perpetuating the bullshit in a different way, wearing leather jackets instead of pink aprons.”
Mouthpiece addresses the female voice throughout music’s history — beginning with a chant, to swing-era harmonies, rock and roll, to the “grl pwr” of today. Since music can excel at capturing and describing feelings, especially when paired with movement, it was an obvious inclusion.
“(In) the canon of popular music, women don’t sing together. The only things that exist are those Diva Nights, horrible battles of who’s loudest—Tina, Cher, Celine. It’s an interesting question to ponder, why you don’t put two women together, or (why) women don’t. We did, but we’re playing two sides of one woman. You needed two voices to communicate that cognitive dissonance, the push and pull, what’s inside her head. Even if they’re being beaten by Ike Turner, or whatever, you can’t manufacture that indefinable quality that a woman brings,” says Nostbakken.
“Where do we look for an example of a really powerful woman’s voice in the fabric of our culture that’s not about sex? So many blanks,” said Sadava.
Mouthpiece’s material is intimate enough, and their outfits reflect that, matching their stark surroundings by sporting simple white bodysuits.
“It puts the audience in a position of (encountering) their own gaze — when are they looking at our bodies as objects and when are they seeing us as humans, when are their eyes drawn to flesh and when are their ears tuned into what we’re actually saying? (It’s) clinical, the very white tub and suits makes us look like specimens under a microscope,” says Sadava.
“We have a bathtub, so we do have a prop, but if the audience doesn’t buy into the magic, it’s two girls in white bathing suits running around stage doing voices and singing. If the magic isn’t there, it’s ridiculous and horrifying,” says Nostbakken.
What makes the performance so refreshing is how it so accurately captures modern life from a female perspective, without limiting it to the female experience. Mouthpiece devastates, and yet the message isn’t being yelled through a megaphone, it makes one question one’s own actions by seeing how they affect others. It’s a true lesson in empathy and respect — for women, for everyone. It’s exhausting, not only to watch the performance but to think that this fight is not new. “Lots of (older) women came to see our show and said, ‘I can’t believe you’re still dealing with this, I’m so sad,’” says Sadava.
“No one in my life can get away with bullshit anymore, and they know it, they really do. And sometimes it’s hard to be that woman, and sometimes it feels great,” says Nostbakken.