Erin Markey and Emily Davis Square Off in Singlet
Markey probes the relationship between wrestling and intimacy in her strange new play at the Bushwick Starr.
Singlet begins with what looks like a scene in an after-school special about eating disorders: "I can't believe I fit into the small," Emily Davis breathlessly whispers as Erin Markey dares her to try on an extra small. Their imaginary dressing room suddenly seems real within the white nothingness of Carolyn Mraz's set. The intimacy of the room is palpable as their angular features dance in the momentous twilight of Barbara Samuels's lighting. But just when we think we've spotted an easily digestible theme, Markey (who wrote this world premiere, now running at the Bushwick Starr) dashes it away like a Buddhist sand mandala. This results in a play that is at times frustrating, hilarious, and rewarding.
Fans of Markey, a downtown cabaret luminary, won't be surprised to learn that Singlet isn't the kind of play that follows characters through a plot that has a beginning, middle, and end. Instead, we get new characters in new situations for every scene: We see the battle of wills between bad girl athlete Cassandra (Markey) and Coach Christie Brinkley (Davis). Then a mother (Markey) and daughter (Davis) reminisce and feud over grandma's death bed. Finally, a young journalist named Manine gets hell from her working-class father for failing to come home and make him dinner.
That last one doesn't really have defined roles since both actors say every line in unison (although Markey seems slightly more like dad). Such experimental flourishes would usually spell disaster, but not here. Davis and Markey are two of the funniest actors working in New York, so we follow them down this rabbit hole even if we're never quite sure where it is going. Their balls-to-the-wall commitment to each beat makes their interaction feel like a wrestling match between titans —and that includes the scenes in which they're actually wrestling.
Movement director Chloe Kernaghan stages this combat with brutal authenticity as Davis and Markey grapple for dominance. As the title suggests, they are wearing wrestling singlets during the entire show (form-fitting costumes by Enver Chakartash with Carter Kidd). Instead of a school emblem printed on the floor, they wrestle over what appears to be a hybrid of the Anne Klein and Versace logos (paging Nomi Malone). Wrestlers and supermodels alike obsess over their weight, but is that where their similarities end? I doubt it after seeing this show.
Director Jordan Fein doesn't underline such connections in his clean and simple staging, but he doesn't really need to with two actors like Davis and Markey, who seem to conjure a whole soundstage with their expressive performances. When they say we're in a high school gymnasium, we believe them and fill in the blanks accordingly.
It's not off-base to say that much of Singlet resembles highly specific BDSM role play, with Davis and Markey exchanging sexually charged glares throughout. Even during the maudlin second act, sex invades the scene, with the sound of loud coitus wafting in from imaginary hospital windows that Davis scurries around the stage to shut (disquieting sound design by Jeff Aaron Bryant with Keenan Hurley). Themes of power and humiliation emerge from every moment. It made me wonder if there can ever be an equal relationship between two individuals without one trying to dominate the other, like a wrestler pinning her opponent to the mat. Certainly, Davis and Markey are treating Bushwick audiences to the match of the decade.