COLUMBIA— Audiences who see the Corner Playhouse’s new fare this week, “New Anatomies,” are in for some social consciousness with their theater. The play is about a 19th-century female explorer who disguises herself as a man to travel across the Sahara with Muslim tribesmen.
Gloria Dossett, the play’s director, said a major reason she proposed the work was that it speaks to the dangers of one nation imposing its identity and values on another against its will.
“I am one of those Americans who have been absolutely furious since the invasion of Iraq, and though this play takes place at the turn of the 20th century, we seem to have learned very little in a hundred years from the mistakes of earlier ‘empire-makers,’” Dossett said. “French attitudes toward nation-building and bestowing the ‘gift’ of French culture on the Algerians seem painfully relevant to me.”
There’s more to the story, however, than a political message. The play, written in 1981 by Timberlake Wertenbaker, is the tale of Isabelle Eberhardt, who broke from the cultural boundaries of her day. Actress Lauren Gress, who plays Isabelle, said although the play touches on political and feminist issues, that isn’t the show’s main focus.
“If people walk out of the show thinking it was slanted, they got the wrong message,” Gress said. “Yes, we do touch on things that have political implications or feminist values, but the show should not be seen as a political message. The show touches on many topics and it’s about opening minds and creating dialogue and not pushing any particular agenda.”
Dossett said “New Anatomies” tells the story of a fascinating woman who led an extraordinary life. “She felt that European values left precious little for adventurous women to experience,” Dossett said. “She also felt that the Muslim faith offered a view of God that made sense to her, and she insisted upon living life on her terms or not at all.”
The cast of “New Anatomies” is comprised entirely of women who play every role, male or female, soldiers or beggars, Europeans or Africans.
“(‘New Anatomies’) is a play for nine women. I am primarily a classical theater director by trade who specializes in Shakespeare, and I felt it was time to do a little penance for employing so many men and so few women over the last two decades,” Dossett said. “These young ladies are, without exception, talented and disciplined beyond their years.”
Of Gress’ portrayal of Isabelle, Dossett said she rarely sees an actor who can handle classical acting technique, wit and bawdiness. “She has approached Isabelle as a fully human, deeply intelligent woman,” Dossett said. “Her Isabelle sees the absurdity of her condition even as she strives to expand it. Her sensitivity to life is painful to watch sometimes.”
Gress, a senior journalism major with a minor in theater, said she originally wasn’t going to try out for the play but, after making the decision to audition, just wanted to sink her teeth into it.
“Playing the role is a great reward and a great burden as I bear much of the weight of the show on my shoulders,” Gress said. “After digging into Isabelle and seeing her motivations, I have been able to draw comparisons to my own life and have learned much from her.”
Judith Sebesta, an assistant professor of theater history, theory and criticism at MU who also supervised Dossett on “New Anatomies,” said the play was a good choice for Dossett because of her extensive directing experience. She added that the play was enhanced by how much research Dossett did, including on the playwright, the history of Isabelle Eberhardt and Islam.
“‘New Anatomies’ is not an easy piece,” Sebesta said. “It deals with difficult issues related to some very sensitive subjects in today’s world. I think the faculty likely knew that Gloria would have both the sensitivity and experience to do the play justice.”
Dossett is finally getting her chance to do “New Anatomies” justice after some bad luck with it in the past. The first time she tried to mount the production the theater closed because of an ice storm for both weekends the show was set to run. Dossett’s second attempt was no better; her lead died in an accident just a week before the play’s opening.
“This play is my personal ‘Macbeth,’” Dossett said. “I figure the third time’s the charm, and I am not going anywhere near a weather report until after the play closes.”