By Irfan Shariff
Northwest Asian Weekly
In SIS Productions’ West Coast premiere of Chicago playwright Mia McCullough’s “Impenetrable,” we are forced to examine the notion of feminine beauty. We come to the conclusion that society is obsessed with beauty, whether “big is beautiful,” “beauty is relative,” or that “beauty is burdensome.” We all have our opinions. “Impenetrable” asks you to question your ideals.
When the audience seats itself, it immediately comes face-to-face with a large painting of a beautiful bikini-clad woman. The painting is sliced up into four panels, with arrows targeting the eyes, hands, hair, legs, and other concerning body parts. No, this isn’t a cadaver, but it may as well be. This is SIS Productions’ reimagining of a suburban Chicago billboard that raised a community battle in 2007. The events surrounding the billboard and ensuing outrage are the backdrop for McCullough’s play.
The play opens with the serene Talya (Ruth Yeo-Peterman) showing us how to wear the hijab, the traditional headscarf donned by Muslim women. She has Muslim ancestry, but is not Muslim — so why does she wear the hijab?
Talya, one of the four female protagonists (all cast as Asian American), is the epitome of youthful beauty. She was a model and now a medical student. She is bright, yet cerebral. An ex-boyfriend once called her “impenetrable” because of the walls she puts up. Throughout the narrative, we learn Talya is the model on the billboard. The photo, taken by her now-estranged friend Pete (Shane Regan), was sold to the Parisian-raised Arab American spa owner Mourad (Erwin Galan) to be used in his marketing materials.
“Impenetrable” is non-linear, but that doesn’t mean it’s unapproachable. The unique format takes on a series of monologues and competing plotlines that are pieced together as the billboard is exposed to the public. Until that moment, characters speak directly to the audience and exchange dialogue infrequently. They are comedic, sometimes flat, but matter-of-fact and make you empathize with their personal neuroses. But as the billboard is raised, the pace speeds up leading to an overwhelming revelation.
Characters like Andie (Lisa Marie Nakamura), the gregarious and snarky coffee shop manager, and Julie (Kathy Hsieh), the quintessential soccer mom, are polar opposites of each other, both socially and physically. Julie’s daughter and Barbie doll, Cari (Sara Javkhlan), breathes fresh air to the production. Cari is a meek, bookworm who is bullied at school and spends too much time with her mother, who in turn spends too much time at the spa and orders over-complicated drinks at the coffee shop.
“Impenetrable” is brimming with themes and stereotypes to break down. At times, there is too much to handle, but the poignancy that these characters exude is not. We all feel like this. SIS Productions and director Charles Waxberg’s choice of using an all Asian American female cast (unlike the world premiere production) speaks this universality.
The production is part of SIS Productions’ Celebrate Women! Campaign. It hopes to inspire all people, regardless of gender, age, or ethnic background, to re-envision the value of women in our culture. (end)
“Impenetrable” runs through May 3 at West of Lenin, located at 203 N 36th Street. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturday, April 26 at 4 p.m., Monday, April 28 at 8 p.m., and Thursday, May 1 at 8 p.m.
For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/sisproductions.
To donate to the Celebrate Women! campaign, visit http://kck.st/O6Ixnm.
Irfan Shariff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.