You’ve seen her before. Her head is tilted back, faux smile plastered ear-to-ear, a dressing-less salad in one hand and a fork in the other. Her eyes are half closed in a gesture of pure bliss because yum! — what could be tastier than a handful of plain romaine and GMO’d tomatoes? To the woman laughing alone with salad, there seems to be absolutely nothing better.
The image of a lonely woman eating bland, healthy food serves as the soulless inspiration for Sheila Callaghan’s soulful play “Women Laughing Alone with Salad.” Callaghan’s dark feminist comedy does not so much subvert these bland images of automatons as it turns the volume on high and magnifies them to an ear-shattering shriek of feminine frustration. It’s loud, it hurts, it can sometimes feel like a Judith Butler lecture pumped up on steroids, but oh boy, is it a whole lot more tasty than a lackluster garden salad.
The play begins with a simple tableau: three unnamed women (Melanie DuPuy, Regina Morones and Sango Tajima) sit on a park bench, decked out in raincoats, and begin to eat their salads. That sounds normal enough, right?
But soon, in between bites, each of the three woman start to laugh. It’s a chuckle at first, then a deep-belly giggle and finally a full-body, hysterical roar. Their mouths are open, we see the salad, and it’s disgusting. What was cute, petite and in-check is now monstrous. Then, enters a man (Caleb Cabrera) who pops down on the bench, manspreads and pulls out a monstrous burrito. The women quiet down and stare at the burrito with a painful longing. These women have never seen anything as beautiful as that burrito before. But they can’t have it.
This may all sound a tad dramatic, and it is, but that is Callaghan and director Susannah Martin’s whole point. They magnify struggles men take for granted (i.e. a scene depicting what the characters should order for brunch becomes the most dramatic in the play) into issues of life and death.
We follow Guy (Cabrera), a middle-class, moody English grad who cannot understand why his girlfriend Tori (Tajima) won’t just order a burger every once in a while. Yet, when Guy meets Meredith (Morones) at a club one night, he sees something different. He sees someone physically and emotionally larger than life, a girl whom he is singularly attracted to because she is a couple sizes larger than he’s used to. Does Guy care that Meredith has her own body issues, too? No, she’s a commodity that has to be obtained, an exotic catch that he wants to reel in.
This, however, is not your typical “love triangle.” Callaghan imbues every sense of “Women Laughing Alone with Salad” with an in-your-face satirical intensity that only slightly lets up in the play’s second act. When a woman eats a vegetable, she groans as if she’s mid-orgasm. Salads fall from the sky, lettuce shoots from the wings and Tajima gives a valant lip-synced performance to Kanye West’s “Power” that even RuPaul would applaud.
Mikiko Uesugi’s stunning set design magnifies these details, surrounding the characters and the audience with marketable images and videos of women gobbling up plain salads or, as the narrator recounts, “wearing white pants and doing cartwheels while on my period.” The performance’s successful use of multimedia gives context to the human drama onstage and perpetuates the argument that the characters’ internalized misogyny is not some random feeling but directly perpetuated by media producers and their capitalistic instincts.
It would be easy to become completely estranged by the twists, jumbles and countless salad bowls. But Callaghan’s characters always reel us back in. They should all be cliches — but the writing is too specific and the acting is too thoughtful to go there.
Callaghan and Martin’s play is a lot, and purposefully so. They magnify the internalized misogyny and complacency within all of us and ask us what we’re going to do about it. Are we going to look at a stock photo of a woman laughing alone with salad and see an aspirational representation of femininity or a discourse of commodification and destruction? It’s hard to say, but leaving the Ashby Stage, you’ll know one thing for sure: You’ll never want to touch a salad again.