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Facing Angela, by Scott T. Barsotti
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
While visiting Rick and Libby in Chicago, they took me out to see Facing Angela, a play written by a friend of theirs, Scott Barsotti. They warned me up front that Scott writes disturbing plays about the nature of identity, and this certainly qualified. I didn't actually *like* it, but I have a lot to say about it, so it's successful art in that sense, at any rate.

First, here's the official blurb:
Angela has lost her face. Acquiring a new face alters more than skin and tissue, cutting into Angela's relationship with her husband, Wes, and mutating her sense of self. As Angela re-constructs, re-invents, and re-defines her identity, Wes ceases to recognize the woman he loves, and doubts whether he really knows himself either. This re-imagining of Barsotti's 2003 play, explored over the course of the season with the cast and company, will delve deep into how we recognize ourselves and those we go to bed with, and the collateral damage of transformative change.
Though the blurb doesn't mention this, Angela suffers from a chronic skin condition, and subsequent body-image issues and persistent low self-esteem. Her husband does his best to be a supportive partner, but (spoiler) ultimately fails.

I had what I expect is an atypical reaction to this play. I am myself married to a woman with chronic medical issues and subsequent self-esteem problems. If her problems had been worse, and I had been stupider, "Facing Angela" could have been our story. Thankfully, rather than psychodrama, we live in a screwball comedy :-) But it made the story very personal for me, and made me frequently want to smack the characters: "*NO*, you idiot! You're doing it wrong!"

This identification also made me sensitized to all the things the playwright *didn't* show. Does Wes have a job? Does Angela? Where does their health insurance come from (and is that putting extra strain on their relationship)? Do they have any friends? Does Angela have *anything* positive in her life, even a hobby, or does she literally spend *all* her time in self-loathing?

As depicted in this play, Wes and Angela are each other's only emotional support. That is a doomed scenario. It's not that great an arrangement with fully healthy people, but it can't possibly work when low self-esteem is a big factor in the mix. If person X has low self-esteem, then no single person Y can counter that by affirmations. From the point of view of person X, Y can -- must -- be written off as an anomaly, and their affirmations as, at best mistakes, at worst, outright deception. "Since I clearly have no value, then this person who *claims* to value me must be mistaken or lying." And this reaction, naturally, erodes person Y's self-esteem in turn. It's only through socialization, through showing that *many* people find value in person X, that their self-esteem issues can be ameliorated. (Partially at least. It seems to be like alcoholism; one can be in recovery, but never quite 'cured'.)

I had some very interesting conversations with Rick and Libby afterwards. I complained at one point that I don't like stories that are so negative. Rick argued that my response to that negativity was to figure out what the character's were doing wrong, thus engaging deeply with the text, and thus fulfilling the goal of the Artist in communicating ideas. As a counter-example, he posited that "You have to watch a lot of Thin Man movies before you realize what a healthy relationship Nick and Nora have, and start to wonder why." I wanted to reflexively argue against that, but then realized than my own history suggested he was right. Early in my romantic relationship with Kestrell, I successfully communicated an important-but-complex point to her by comparing a problem we were having to a problem Buffy and Riley were going through (it was early season 5 of BtVS when this happened). Art that shows characters making dumb decisions demonstrably *can* help people to "not be that guy".

Having spent a lot of time complaining about various aspects of the writing, I'd like to mention that the production was excellent. Excellent acting. Set and costumes were simple but effective. Makeup was brilliant, and far more impactful than in most plays. The sound design *hurt*, but I think in ways that were intentional. [Sidenote: the Athenaum has the creepiest bathroom acoustics I've ever encountered. Seriously Lovecraftian gurgling.] The writer and director do a bunch of fascinating things with identity and the uncanny valley. I can't precisely *recommend* the show, but I hope I've given you an idea of whether or not you would like it.

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Fascinating. Did it weird you out for days?

I was definitely weirded out *during* the show, but that wasn't long-lasting. Did feel the need to talk about it, though :-)

I'd read a book around 2001, with a very similar premise: a very pretty retired model, something of a loner, is in a car crash. Her face is reconstructed so she no longer looks like herself, and is plain rather than super-pretty.

Her return to her world is an adventure.

L loves a book where a tomboy girl's brain is put in a teen supermodel, and the effects thereof.

I think that I agree with Rick (and you, however grudging you were about it), that negative models can be instructive... but I also disagree with Rick, on the specific point about The Thin Man movies: the first time I watched them, I thought a *lot* about how awesome the Nick and Nora relationship is, and about how two people could actually manage to pull that off.

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