The Brothers: (l. to r.) Dominique Dibbell, Babs Davy, Moe Angelos, Lisa Kron, Peg Healy.
The Five Lesbian Brothers
The Five Lesbian Brothers are Maureen Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibbell, Peg Healey and Lisa Kron. The Brothers came together as a theater company in 1989 after performing together in various other combinations at the Obie award winning WOW Cafe Theatre. To quote Holly Hughes (whose own work was unnerving enough to get “defunded” by the NEA): “The Five Lesbian Brothers have developed an astonishing body of work that reads as ‘real theatre,’ even though it was made in a community far off the cultural radar screen, in cooperative spaces that flourished without funding, using methods and techniques that came out of second-wave-feminism rather than an MFA program.”
Their repertoire includes five plays, Voyage to Lesbos, Brave Smiles, The Secretaries and Brides of the Moon, and Oedipus at Palm Springs, as well as numerous event-specific showstopping acts. The Brothers’ plays have been produced Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway and beyond by New York Theatre Workshop, The Joseph Papp Public Theatre, the WOW Cafe Theatre, Downtown Art Company, Performance Space 122, Dixon Place, La Mama, the Kitchen and the Whitney Museum of American Art at Phillip Morris. They have toured to London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Houston, Columbus, Seattle, Philadelphia, Boston and the deep woods of Michigan. Their plays have also been produced by other companies throughout the United States and, believe it or not, in Zagreb, Croatia.
In addition to their theatrical work, the Brothers have also written a book of lesbian humor for Simon and Schuster and three short films for HBO. They were selected, along with Kiki and Herb and Tammy Faye Starlight, to host episodes of "Late Night Out" on the Showtime Network. Their work is taught in theater and queer/feminist studies courses in universities throughout the U.S.
The Brothers are the recipients of a 2005 GLAAD Media Award, Village Voice Obie Award, a New York Dance and Performance Award ("Bessie"), and a New York Press Award as Best Performance Group.
An anthology of their plays entitled "Five Lesbian Brothers/Four Plays" was published in 2000 by Theatre CommunicationsGroup.
Voyage to Lesbos
Voyage to Lesbos, WOW Café, 1990; written & directed by The Five Lesbian Brothers
The Brothers’ first full-length collaboration was Voyage to Lesbos, written and directed by all of them, which opened on May 24, 1990 at the WOW Café in the East Village. Brother Dominique Dibbell explains: “Lesbian feminism of the 1970s and 1980s had placed a heavy emphasis on ‘positive images of lesbians.’ But by the late ‘80s the emphasis had become a mandate. No good art can come of a mandate, so we incorrigibly did the opposite of what we were told: we instinctively returned to the image of lesbians as pervert.
Lisa Kron adds: “The action of the play takes place in Lesbos, Illinois, in a vaguely defined pre-Stonewall, post-Freudian period of American culture. The occasion is Bonnie’s wedding day. Five mysteriously intertwined women ostensibly prepare for the golden event, while their every action serves to sabotage it. That is as far as we get plot-wise.
Liz Kotz observed in ArtForum in 1993, in her essay The Fraternal Feminine: “By allowing themselves to succumb to the kitschy appeal of these admittedly problematic artifacts, the Brothers explore the reaches of popular memory that are often repressed in more openly politicized projects. Their first venture, Voyage to Lesbos, 1990, was based on a forgotten tome of '50s pop psychology called Voyage from Lesbos, which recounted the failed "cure" of an unsuspecting insomniac's lesbian desires. Quickly dispensing with any semblance of a plot, the ever changing production careened through a retro-fashion nightmare complete with go-go boots, leather cigarette cases, and girls chasing pills across the linoleum. "Taking on femme and making it dark," in the words of poet and performer Eileen Myles, the play's peculiar logic pursued the strange affinity between pulp sociology and Valley of the Dolls fiction, both genres partaking in a decidedly low-brow brand of gay representation that unashamedly indulged mass-market voyeurism in the perverse and exotic.
“This relentless parody of femininity is more often associated with drag queens than with lesbians. And clearly the Brothers have gleaned a lot, not only from the WOW scene but from drag performers like Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theater company. But the Brothers' mix of sincerity and sarcasm invites a more personal, and more precarious, sense of vulnerability and identification.”
The brothers continued to work together in long form, and as their technique grew, they acquired a director, and two of the members took responsibility for “scripting” their writing work and improvisation into their next play.
Brave Smiles…Another Lesbian Tragedy, was first produced in January 1992 at the WOW Café, directed by Kate Stafford; and was subsequently produced the following year at One Dream.
Brother Babs Davy says: “We wrote free-writing after free-writing, some as short as a minute, some as long as an hour. We read them aloud and began making lists of images, possible characters and locations…In the end we had piles of writing and Dominique volunteered to write the second act and Peg, who was laid up from sinus surgery and couldn’t rehearse, volunteered to write the first act.”
Dominique Dibbell adds: “This was our first play that Kate Stafford directed. She did much to shape our unique performance style with her simple and inventive solutions to the monumental problems we presented to her: numerous blackouts, lightning-quick costume changes, a play that wanted to be a movie.”
A sort of homage/parody of all the lesbian iconography (stereotypical, erotic, and negative) on stage and in film, the Brothers pillaged such source material as Johnny Guitar, The Killing of Sister George, The Well of Loneliness, The Children’s Hour, Julia, and of course, Maedchen in Uniform, among others.
Brother Peg Healey says: “We watched, read, listened to, explored and absorbed every possible lesbian icon we could get our hands on and shamelessly used them for our own purposes. If the story of the lesbian is that she was always doomed to suffer an unhappy life and then die a tragic death, then we really wanted to pile it on.”
In his New York Times review, “Sending Up A Lesbian's Cutout Life Of Sorrows,” Peter Marks notes: “As viewed through the often unflattering prisms of Hollywood and Broadway, among other places, the lesbian's lot has never been a particularly happy one. It is the Brothers' goal to change all that. In ''Brave Smiles'' they gleefully catalogue the unhappinesses; it's impossible not to laugh at their reflections on a mainstream culture that until very recently rigidly preferred to view women who loved women as either doomed or sinister. And they carry it all off with a good-natured suaveness that showcases their polish and generosity of spirit.
“The play, directed crisply by Kate Stafford, is a portrait of what one might call the manically repressed, those women of illicit desires in books and movies who seem to dwell in perpetually murky denial, despair or bitterness. The glory of ''Brave Smiles'' is that the Brothers see through the societal sermonizing; the production is a loopier cousin to cautionary films like ''Reefer Madness.''
The Secretaries, by the Five Lesbian Brothers, WOW Café, 1993, directed by Kate Stafford.
In their third play, the Brothers achieved what Brother Moe Angelos calls “a true product of pure collaboration. It is our most artistically successful play, so far; it’s the most well-constructed. We really stuck to plot with the help of our wise dramaturg Sybille Pearson. It has been the most satisfying process for us.”
The Secretaries was first produced at the WOW Café in December of 1993, directed by Kate Stafford, and was also presented at Theatre Rhinoceros, San Francisco; Highways, Los Angeles; Alice B. Theatre, Seattle; and DiverseWorks, Houston. It was produced at the New York Theatre Workshop in December, 1994.
“The play examines the ways in which women are the enforcers of sexism,” Lisa Kron says. “The rules that are enforced involve weight, food, sexuality. Proof that we were covering uncharted territory was in the disconnect between the responses of men (notably male reviewers) and women. Women recognized what we were doing because they had experienced it. Men did not because they had never seen it before, never had it described to them. Male viewers often focused on the cartoonish violence at the end of the play when poor Buzz is killed with his own chainsaw. The emotional violence between the women did not show up on their radar. They tended to see the play as a revenge fantasy, which it clearly is not.”
In The Feminist Spectator , Jill Dolan says: The Secretaries continued the Brothers’ winning streak, offering an even more incisive, theatrically honed critique of lesbian and feminist caricatures. This play, with an actual, developed plot and actual characters, challenged the deeply embedded stereotype of the man-hating lesbian (and implicitly the feminist) by playing it to the hilt. The secretaries of the title work together at a lumber mill where every month, timed to their simultaneous menstrual cycles, the women enact the ritual execution of a man, not because, as the script notes, the man is “bad, but because we’re bad.”
"While in Voyage to Lesbos and Brave Smiles, the Brothers performed in a kind of post-modern revue-style format, actual, sustained characters propelled The Secretaries through a more coherent plot. Lisa Kron played a scattered, over-sized typist who can’t maintain the rigors of the SlimFast diet the secretaries are sworn to follow, and nearly steals the show with her hilarious scenes of giving in to her hunger. Peg Healy enacted the slickly, sickly elegant dominatrix office manager, who seduces all the girls and initiates them into the cult of secretarial blood pooling. Babs Davy won laughs with her clueless innocent who goes blithely along for the ride, and Dominique Dibbell played the narrator, a stand-up woman who joins the pool and unwittingly finds herself entangled in the ritualistic cult. Moe Angelos was the only performer double-cast, playing an earnest man who falls in love with one of the women as well as a mousy, rule-abiding secretary. Dibbell’s character’s movement from conventional to maniacal frames the play, and her retrospective narration sets its satirically elegiac tone.
Brides of the Moon
Brides of the Moon, written by the Five Lesbian Brothers and scripted by Peg Healey
The Brothers went to the future (or their version of it) in their next play, Brides of the Moon. Set in Stinkle, Ohio and in outer space in the year 2069, the play imagines a future in which the world is a corporation, and news and advertising are the same thing. (Yes, this is meant to be the future.) In creating the world of the play, the Brothers came up with the foods people would eat and drink, the cigarettes they’d smoke, and a pseudo-scientific techno-babble that would give any Star Trek series a run for its money.
Brides of the Moon was first produced at the WOW Caféin October 1996 under the direction of Kate Stafford; it was also presented by Theatre Offensive, Boston; Wexner Center, Columbus; Theatre Rhinoceros, San Francisco; and th Michigan Women’s Music Festival. It was “facelifted” and presented by New York Theatre Workshop in November 1997, directed by Molly D. Smith.
Peg Healey says: “I think the most valuable thing I learned in working on Brides is that the Brothers’ strength as playwrights is in imagining new worlds and making those worlds seem real to people. Our writing isn’t always cohesive or as streamlined and structured as the work of anyone single playwright, but we fill out the missing connection with our love of performance, our love of theatre and its magic and, of course, our love for each other.”
Babs Davy adds: “We had all reached a point where we could forgive ourmothers for their fucked-up lives and accept them for themselves and for doing the best they could against insurmountable odds. We created a worldwide corporation to represent those odds and a woman who had at one time been a promising astronaut, but because of her integrity and ruined any chance she might have had to advance in her career…her daughter knows nothing of her mother’s former life, and sees only a nitwit who can’t microwave a fish stick without a recipe.”
Oedipus at Palm Springs
Oedipus at Palm Springs, NY Theatre Workshop, 2005
The Brothers’ most recent play was 2005’s Oedipus at Palm Springs, at the New York Theatre Workshop. The return of the Brothers after a several year gap between plays was treated as a major event in the New York theatre community, and showed how far the brothers had come since their origin (the length of one block), and marked the continuation of their journey from outsiders to bellwethers.
In their latest piece, they continued to mine the history of culture for exploration, going back to the Greeks for their personal update and interpretation of a classic tragedy.
In The Feminist Spectator, Jill Dolan write an essay called “The Return of the Five Lesbian Brothers, recalling “I first saw the Five Lesbian Brothers perform when they were a fledgling troupe of irreverent satirists working out of the legendary WOW Café in New York’s East Village in the early 80s…Even their oxymoronic name, in the early 80s, signaled their determination to fly in the face of certain feminist strictures about sexual expression…long before “queer” entered the lexicon as an identity or a sexual practice—the Brothers imagined a rather Foucauldian world (although they’d laugh at the reference to theory) in which bodies and pleasure found each other without regard to gender, feminist or dominant politics, or theatrical conventions. They used performance at its outer limits to test the possibilities of reimagining women’s desire and to explore how to tell that story to women who elsewhere were being dissuaded from acknowledging the range of their sexual potential.”
In the Times, Charles Isherwood noted the new tone of the Brothers’ work: “The play's title is not a gag; it's a literal description. This Sapphic sex comedy is also a modern variant on Sophocles' totemic tragedy. Given that titular clue, you may see the big revelation coming early on, but it is still a provocative, disturbing twist. That it is presented with probing sensitivity and not an absurdist wink suggests a desire on the part of these artists to forgo another romp in the familiar pastures of zany comedy to aim at something more complex. Richly funny as it is, "Oedipus at Palm Springs" is also a serious inquiry into the unforeseen extremities of despair that can attend the search for a pure and lasting love.
“Given the collective nature of its authorship (the text is credited to all the performers but Ms. Davy), the play is surprisingly smooth and skillfully developed, taking gentle comic jabs at a variety of soft and hard targets, from the absurdities of pop-psych therapeutics to the relative merits of maintaining strictly defined sex roles in lesbian relationships.
“And, collectively, these five women fill the stage with a quirky, lived-in humanity that brings its own rewards. Technique is of secondary interest when the performers are so naturally in tune with their material, their collaborators and, one suspects, themselves. It is this unusual gift that allows "Oedipus" to remain affecting and amusing - and reach a measure of painful truth, too - even when it delves into dramatically and emotionally troublesome territory.
Dolan adds: “The conflict between motherhood and sexuality provides a fruitful topic for increasingly domesticated white middle-class lesbian couples. Con’s sexual frustration, played with perfect-pitch comic timing by Kron, who’s hysterically funny in an understated, poignant way throughout the play, offers a nice twist on more conventional hetero sex farces. Kron’s scene in the pool, in which she stands in front of the water jets to get off, underlines her impeccable physical comedy talents. That the scene comes shortly after she’s reclined on a lounge chair reading the latest Harry Potter novel makes it only that much more apt.
The play was also performed at Theatre Offensive in Boston, where Moe Angelos, in an interview with EdgeBoston recalled how the brothers came up with the idea to do their spin on a Greek tragedy.
“It all started with a joke, as it usually does. We thought it would be really funny... really funny!... to write a play about a lesbian who accidentally sleeps with her mother, and call it Oedipussy. That was the original germ that then grew into a swarming virus, a flesh -virus perhaps…But then we were in Palm Springs, writing, and we became intrigued by the people around us. Palm Springs is an extremely odd retirement/gay community. There were all of these wealthy, upper-middle-class lesbians, driving Lexuses and stuff, and we were sort of, "How do they do this?" Because it’s very different than the community we’re from in New York. So [the play] switched locales to Palm Springs.”