Review: In ‘Spindle Shuttle Needle,’ History With Strings Attached

A siege is terrifying. It is profoundly disorienting. It is also, as Gab Reisman argues in her lively, quasi Marxist comedy “Spindle Shuttle Needle,” kind of a bummer.

“I should be painting outside and going to book club!” moans Charlotte, a young woman of good family. “I should be visiting Dresden and studying Swedish.”

Instead, Charlotte (Monique St. Cyr), who may have done something dumb with some sensitive diplomatic letters, spends her days hiding in the rough-hewed cottage of Tilda (Mia Katigbak), a weaver. Hanni (Zoë Geltman), Tilda’s daughter, and Jules (Florencia Lozano), an Italian refugee with a criminal past, also sojourn there. The time is late in the Napoleonic wars and the place is somewhere in or near Saxony. As the women spin wool into yarn and weave yarn into blankets, the sound of a battle rumbles just outside the wooden doors.

“Spindle Shuttle Needle,” a winner of Clubbed Thumb’s past biennial commission, joins a jauntily postmodern company of plays that refract history through the insouciant lens of the present. (Watching it, on the narrow stage of the Wild Project, I thought of recent and semi-recent Off Broadway plays such as David Adjmi’s “Marie Antoinette,” Jordan Harrison’s “The Amateurs,” Jen Silverman’s “The Moors.”) The commission prompted writers to think through the work of the playwright Caryl Churchill, and Reisman’s comedy has echoes of Churchill’s early plays, like “Light Shining in Buckinghamshire” and “Vinegar Tom.”

But that comparison isn’t all that instructive. Reisman has a couple of big themes in mind — the transition from an artisan economy to a capitalist one, the role of women in war. But the Marxist analytics are pretty limited. And the depredations of war (embodied in the arrival of a young soldier, played by Seth Clayton) are never staged with enough realism to fully register. There’s a frisky refusal to reckon with what life might have been like in a besieged Germany two centuries ago and an incomplete attempt to suggest what any of this might mean to us now. None of which means that “Spindle Shuttle Needle” isn’t a very nice time.

Under Tamilla Woodard’s direction, the play works best as a hangout comedy about the borderline witchy things that women get up to when they are left in close quarters and cramped circumstances, when they are left mostly alone. Occasionally, Reisman flirts with a plot. Will Hanni find her brother? Will Charlotte’s secret be discovered? Will Tilda, a loom genius, be permitted to join the all-male weaver’s guild? And hey, what’s that brand on Jules’s neck? Yet Reisman’s greater interest is in how these very different women fill their time and their stew pot, how they jostle along together.

And so we get scenes in which they dose one another with herbal tinctures; they pick nits out of one another’s hair; they kill a chicken for dinner; they clean the pelt of a rabbit; they tell stories, like one involving a crow, a mouse and a sausage. (That fable is a little Aesop, a little Brothers Grimm, a lot Reisman.)

Also, they spin, which is played here as a frankly erotic activity. Even Tilda’s instructions for handling the thread seem freighted with double entendre.

“Wet your fingers then slide it along the twist,” she says. “Push and release. Push and release. Find the rhythm for yourself then keep it steady. Slide. You feel it?” Let’s just say that yes, Charlotte feels it.

Katigbak is a treasure of Off Off Broadway, and remains so here, as does Tina Benko, who plays a rascally entrepreneur. St. Cyr, Geltman and Clayton are somewhat less familiar, and Lozano is better known from television. Each is given space and language to dazzle in the tidy confines of Frank J. Oliva’s stonework set, lit by Barbara Samuels, in playful, slightly silly costumes by Dina El-Aziz. The overall pattern of “Spindle Shuttle Needle” isn’t especially imposing, but the individual threads still shine.

Spindle Shuttle Needle
Through June 16 at Clubbed Thumb, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes.

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