Madcap sapphic comedy shatters cisgender hetero paradigms in ‘Merry Me’ at the New York Theatre Workshop

Playwright Hansol Jung and director Leigh Silverman, both “Usual Suspect” affiliates of the New York Theatre Workshop, have teamed up for the NYTW production of Merry Me, an over-the-top mash-up of Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, and Restoration comedy, pop culture hits of the stage, screen, and radio, and a whole lot more in an uproarious lesbian-centric farce that calls out the cis-white-hetero-male patriarchy, pc wokeness, and the human drive for sexual satisfaction with non-stop zingers, wordplays, and innuendo, physical comedy, and self-referencing metatheatrical breaks through the fourth wall. The show comes with a trigger warning; it contains strobe effects, flashing lights, loud sounds, and simulated sex acts (with Rocío Mendez serving as Intimacy Coordinator), all of which, if you’re not overly sensitive to or offended by them, add to the no-holds-barred hilarity, delivered by a diverse cast of seven hysterically funny actors with across-the-board masterful comedic skills.

Shaunette Renée Wilson. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The performance opens with an in-and-out-of-character direct-address prologue/curtain speech by Shaunette Renée Wilson playing The Angel – a parodic appropriation from Tony Kushner’s Tony-winning play Angels in America (and, later, of the glittering skin-tight costumes and feathered wings worn by Beyoncé) – to introduce the characters and to set the scene, sort of, at a Navy basecamp on an island “near the vulnerable coasts of the enemy state” (the name is classified and the latitude and longitude redacted for government purposes, we are told) during the year of an ongoing war (so that could be pretty much any time in history, as implied by the pan-temporal references), which both the actor and the audience have to imagine (since it’s our jobs). It had everyone laughing out loud from the outset and kept it going strong for the next 90 minutes.

Nicole Villamil, Shaunette Renée Wilson, and Ryan Spahn. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Among the zany, and raunchy, plot points are an unexplained blackout at the Navy base; The Angel’s prophecy that half of the Earth’s population must die (a “targeted effort to kill off Cis-gendered Male Species of European descent”); the unfulfilling marital relations between Private Willy Memnon (who was called by The Angel to fix the blackout) and his wife Sappho, as well as those of his father General Memnon and the General’s wife Clytemnestra; and the promiscuous activity of Lieutenant Shane Horne, who has been satisfying the libidinous needs of all the women on the base (though she hasn’t been able to get “the merries” to come for herself) and whom the General wants to court martial for her “heretically heterophobic courting habits.”

One of the many women Shane is seeing, both in and out of her office, is the Navy’s psychiatrist Doctor Jess O’Nope, implored by her over-active lover to inform the General (falsely) that she’s successfully completed gay conversion therapy (of which the commanding officer becomes convinced after seeing Shane kiss Sappho, badly disguised in men’s clothing), and chosen by The Angel to fulfill the fateful prophecy by igniting her “queer female rage” with real examples of systemic misogyny, in one of the most pointedly funny feminist scenes in the show.

Cindy Cheung, Marinda Anderson, Nicole Villamil, Esco Jouléy, and Shaunette Renée Wilson. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sound wild? It is, and the terrific cast is all-in, embracing the characters and playing off each other with perfect timing, under Silverman’s riotously uninhibited direction. Along with Wilson as the guiding and narrating Angel (and as herself, in the show’s many metatheatrical breaks), are Esco Jouléy as the seductive and muscular Shane, a “gift to lady parts of all shapes, colors, and vintages,” whose mission in life is to satisfy all the women she can; Nicole Villamil as the beautiful Sapph (both she and Jouléy also appeared in Jung’s outstanding Wolf Play), who is sincere and passionate with her lover but sexually frustrated and duplicitous with her husband; Ryan Spahn as the naïve and nerdy Willy, who professes to be a “woke” “ally of the gays,” is devastated by the thought of Sappho leaving him, but is willing to sacrifice himself for the good of humankind; and Marinda Anderson as Doctor O’Nope, who tries to maintain more of a level head than the others, though unwittingly becomes The Angel’s reluctant prophet. Rounding out the consistently excellent company are David Ryan Smith as the jealous, impotent, war-craving General Memnon and Cindy Cheung as his sex-starved wife, who also appear with Wilson as white-robed angels at the narrative’s surprising climax.

Cindy Cheung, Shaunette Renée Wilson, and David Ryan Smith. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The artistic team further enhances the humor, with an intentionally simple scenic design by Rachel Hauck, evocative lighting by Barbara Samuels, and sound by Caroline Eng and Kate Marvin that make us do our job of imagining, and costumes by Alejo Vietti that define the characters of the angels, the Navy, and the civilian wives, and showcase Shane’s “shapely shouldered” well-sculpted upper body and “massive biceps.” And props by Lauren E. Chilton are perfectly suited to the subject and the quirky wit (including the makeshift communication devices used by the Memnons).

Will humanity survive, will relationships flourish, and will they all get merry? O’Hare lets us know in the show’s incisive epilogue. While Merry Me employs often vulgar language, has multiple scenes and sounds of sex, and is decidedly not for everyone, if you enjoy a raucous unapologetic look at sexuality, society, and historical culture from a lesbian perspective, it’s a must-see show and cast. FYI: My husband, who’s a member of the “Cis-gendered Male Species of European descent,” also loved it.

Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes, without intermission.

Merry Me plays through Sunday, November 19, 2023, at the New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $59-69, including fees), call (212) 460-5475, or go online. Masks are not required.


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