(l to r) Caitlin Dobbins, Jamie Shriner and Natalie Rae in Underscore Theatre Company’s ‘Wife Material.’ (Photo: Joe Underbakke)
By Becky Sarwate
Wife Material, Jamie Shriner’s self-described “raunchy musical comedy” presents a unique challenge in attempting to separate theatrical form and function from the lived, authentic experience of its author. The talented creator and performer draws from her own complicated biography to educate and entertain audiences, but the play’s juggernaut shift in tone and style is more confusing than competent.
Ms. Shriner explores what it means to be “wife material” in conservative Indiana (ironically, also the locale of Broadway’s latest musical The Prom), while also identifying as a “queer, sex-positive feminist.”
For the majority of the production’s 90-minute total running time, comedy reigns supreme as Ms. Shriner (as described in the show’s promotional materials) “uses her comedic chops to explore the pressures and constraints put on young women” — a characterization that’s fun, raunchy and fully apt.
Throughout that stretch, the show elicits loud, bawdy laughs from an enlightened audience appreciative of empowered female sexuality. Implicitly shared humor accompanies a woman trying to carve a unique path through a predictive, regimented set of Midwestern American cultural values. Ms. Shriner gives generously from her own biographical experiences in service of that comedy.
The work begins promisingly, casting Shriner as a small-town, high school show choir nerd who loses her virginity to an elusive, emotionally unavailable boyfriend. While the man-child proves disposable, Shriner’s love for the sexual chase and experience becomes one of the “10,000 pieces” that compromise her character. Branded by her peers in Indiana, and into her undergraduate college years at Millikin University in Central Illinois as a “bad” girl of dubious morals, Shriner makes the (seemingly) conscious decision to let her freak flag fly.
But then a #MeToo reckoning is squeezed into a momentum-slowing fashion between its riotous setup and compromising denouement. While painfully authentic and emotional, the sudden pivot to a plotline involving a past sexual assault undercuts what is previously served up as a narrative of female agency. As a feminist writer who urgently believes that more complicated, messy stories for and by women are needed across the entertainment spectrum, it pains me to see the production’s structure as an inadvertent capitulation to the very patriarchy it critiques. The subsequent upshift to a final 10 minutes of sex comedy ends with Shriner’s proscripted, heteronormative conclusion. It’s not what we’re lead to expect and it feels like a cheat.
Structure aside, it’s a pleasure to watch Ms. Shriner, supported by actresses Caitlin Dobbins and Natalie Rae, animate a cast of gender fluid characters to bring her sexual adventures to life. The talented trio tick off every trick stereotype encountered in the one-night stand universe. And it’s great fun to watch Shriner sing and shimmy away from every pathetic male claim upon her body and soul. Keeping her vast inner life to herself is as easy finding an open window and escaping from the fling du jour.
Ms. Shriner, having written the book, music and lyrics, as well as co-starring in the production, is a clear musical theater talent. Her powerful voice, comedic gifts and necessarily self-centered material do not preclude an unselfish approach to her interactions with her cast. Ms. Dobbins and Ms. Rae are harmonic, dramatic chameleons who deserve to be rising stars on the Windy City theater scene.
It’s less of a pleasure to see her female encounters and relationships given relatively short shrift. When a gender-bending “almost love” from Ms. Shriner’s college days accuses her of being “too straight,” I could see her point. Wife Material‘s prioritization seems to be given to the actress’ heteronormative affairs as transformational. The evidence is in the title, in the violent segue that brings the laughs to an abrupt halt, and in the redemptive conclusion the audience is meant to draw from her marriage at age 24 to an English man.
Is Jamie Shriner’s confident sexuality a ruse, a phase, a self-delusion brought about by male objectification and assault, or an authentic journey brought to its inevitable, truncated conclusion by the forces of young love? These are rhetorical questions I hate having to ask. They interfere with my unbridled enjoyment of Shriner’s show(wo)manship.
4609 N Clark, Chicago
Through December 9
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob and their cats, Wendy and Lisa. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.