‘The Patient Gloria’ Review: A Theatrical Remedy for Toxic Therapy
I demand justice for Gloria.
That is Gloria Szymanski, a 30-year-old divorced mother who in the 1960s agreed to be filmed during therapy sessions with three leading male psychologists. The recordings, originally called “Three Approaches to Psychotherapy,” were widely distributed in the United States without her consent, even screened in movie theaters as “The Gloria Films.” (You can watch them on YouTube.) She took legal action but was unsuccessful, and died of leukemia in 1979 at the age of 46.
So when Gloria glides across the stage at St. Ann’s Warehouse in the punchy, punk-rock play “The Patient Gloria,” she does so performatively. Dressed in a pale pink dress, white shoes and matching purse, Gloria, gracefully portrayed by Liv O’Donoghue, routinely sweeps her arms and tidily recrosses her legs, as if she’s aware she’s being watched.
She shares the stage with a petite woman sporting a white-blond pixie cut, a white button-down blouse, striped tie, gray slacks and chunky gold boots. (The chic costumes are by Sarah Bacon.) “Liv will be playing Gloria,” this woman, Gina Moxley, tells the audience at the start of the show, gesturing toward O’Donoghue. “I’m about to play three men,” she continues, brandishing a hand-sewn penis and scrotum stuffed with “cotton wool and some bird seed.” She also introduces the bassist Jane Deasy, who annotates the production and provides musical accompaniment, including thrumming covers of L7 and Van Morrison.
D.I.Y. genitalia and rock-show components aren’t even the most shocking parts of this bold work of postmodern feminist art by Moxley, a Dublin-based playwright and actor. Before the play is over, someone will get swallowed by a vagina and an appendage will levitate.
Presented by St. Ann’s Warehouse, in association with Moxley and Pan Pan, “The Patient Gloria,” which opened Sunday, was first performed in 2018 at the Dublin Theater Festival. The show, directed by John McIlduff with a deliciously arch grade of satire, combines scenes of Moxley and O’Donoghue re-enacting snippets of the Gloria films with Moxley sharing reflections of her own experiences growing up in Ireland in the 1970s.
Moxley recounts the sexual harassment and taunts she endured and the less-than-subtle ways misogyny was rampant in the culture in an anaphoric list of statements all beginning with the phrase “I Remember,” recalling the poet Joe Brainard’s 1970s work “I Remember.” (“I remember when women had pubic hair,” Moxley says. “I remember being told I’d get what was coming to me.”) All of it is awful, but none of it surprising, especially given the ways our world also still disregards, disrespects and polices women and their bodies.
This swift 75-minute show feels rebellious not only in its choice of subject but also in its very structure, which is a playful, meta pastiche. When Moxley straps on her makeshift member and steps into the identities of the three therapists who interviewed Gloria — each his own unique exhibition of male ego — the play seamlessly weaves its sharp commentary into the fabric of the real story. So when Gloria speaks to the first therapist, a man who alternatively parrots all her statements back to her and sings a melody of smug, intrusive mm-hmms, the play loosens its pact with the transcript and interjects with justifiable ire: “Are you going to repeat what I said back to me all through this session?” Gloria chides.
The line between the real dialogue and the editorialized bits of fiction isn’t always clear; the production inspires you to question it, examine it, see where the boundary is. That it’s so faint proves how bizarre this story is.
Another line the play blurs, but to the disservice of the audience, is between Gloria’s story and Moxley’s. There’s a disconnect, so at times the two feel as if they’re in competition, though tighter direction of the transitions might remedy that.
The performances are clever, from the actresses’ barbed line deliveries to their exaggerated physicalities. There’s a biting wit to Moxley’s acting in particular. Her shrewd caricatures of these supposedly respectable doctors feel justified, audits of their toxic psychology. O’Donoghue neatly skips between realism and the furious surreality in Moxley’s script.
O’Donoghue also serves as the choreographer here, further interpreting the characters’ dispositions through their movement. Gloria slowly sways, thoughtfully paces, writhes in pleasure and melts over the furniture.
The set design, by Andrew Clancy, recalls a combination of a therapist’s office and a late-night variety show set: a dark green sofa for a client or guest star, a cozy-looking reclining chair for a therapist or talk show host, and some mics, an empty stool and guitar stand off to the side for the musical guest. And then a few other pieces — a chair, a small table, some potted plants — further help to cozy up the space. The original Gloria Films footage, pink, smoky Rorschach blots and suggestive budding flowers à la Georgia O’Keeffe and Prince’s “Lovesexy” album cover are projected (audiovisual design by Conan McIver) onto a royal purple curtain drawn across the back wall.
It looks like the kind of stage where anything can happen, and it is: Here a woman’s story, a woman’s right to sexual desire and the very names used for women’s bodies can be reclaimed. The play’s homework assignment for the women: Go home and revel in your own pleasure. As for the men? Keep the hands clean, mouth shut and fly zipped — and maybe try some therapy.
The Patient Gloria
Through Dec. 4 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn; stannswarehouse.org. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.