American Beauty Shop – Subjugation of the human by the spectacle. (Theatre Review)

American Beauty Shop

Some Company, and Oleg Pupovac in association with bAKEHOUSE

Kings Cross theatre August 25 – September 16

You can grab your tickets here.

Steel Magnolias was written by Robert Harling in 1987 and like the film made two years later, it was hailed as a feminist classic (although many of the male reviewers complained at the time about the way men were represented in the film) despite its overt glorification of femininity at peak through fertility and female death through childbirth as “sacrifice.” For playwright Dana Lynn Formby the Laura Bush version of “feminism” as exemplified in the steely sacrificial role of the “Southern American Woman” (think of the feminism of Sarah Palin) grates as she has devoted a life to writing from the blue-collar female perspective, disillusioned with the American dream. American Beauty Shop represents from start to finish a refutation of southern-belle mythology and places money, female stoicism and crushing odds at the center of a provocative reveal. We now know, this strikes at the very core of societal divisions, particularly in the way US politics is representing extreme opposing forces for interpretation. We live in an interesting time when the battle for human rights has become one of free speech, endorsing the Freudian notion we are our words. The symbolic order we currently live under (lets call that the Steel Magnolias version of life) is in perpetuial conflict with the semiotic process (lets call that the alternate perspective presented by American Beauty Shop – or political correctness) which affected the ever-transforming power of language and how definition and therefore meaning changes society. The two situations should live with a constant tension; the status quo that supports societal function vs changing language to reflect adaption and progress. Power lies with the symbolic, but energy with the semiotic. What we have seen recently is the marginalized gain some power, and so the ruling class (white males and their apologists) fashion themselves as victims and gain energy from the fight to regain power.

In American Beauty Shop we see, with remarkable clarity, the way society attempts to disrupt the balance and control certain individuals. Consumption replaces aspiration. Everything is a spectacle, an emblem of a thin desire, and what we buy, wear and consume defines us. The spectacle subjugates living human beings to itself to the extent that the economy totally subjugates. When Sue claims “If you can’t eat it or put it in a gas tank it aint gonna get you far” is a refutation of Judy’s desire to play the piano. Ideological crises are played out at the cash register: Judy’s control by the wealthy in buying her socks, and Meg’s living under racism when she buy’s Calvin Kleins Obsession. Power Ball is the ultimate spectacle, a hallucination originating in the absence of boundaries between pleasure and reality, between truth and falsehood. Instead of seeing a shallow-ness and meaning-lessness of capitalism, we experience the images of its propaganda as real. We see self-medication as a remedy address the collapse of psychic space inside with a tonic for the body in Doll. As workers, we produce the means of our own alienation. Sue and Meg are preparing a fantastic new conditioner that makes hair thicken. Judy is to go to MIT to be a chemist. Helen comes up with the idea of using social media to promote The Sugar Factory. Society, the way we have structured it, has an odd logic as an anesthetic; it fulfils desires while simultaneously stripping the subjects capacity to desire.


The great moments of twentieth-century art and culture are moments of formal and metaphysical revolt. But our capacity to revolt is so severely diminished that we give credence to those working to maintain the status quo as a revolution. You can’t fight to maintain the same old thing and call it something new, even if you do pretend at having lost freedom of speech. Dana Lynn Formby tells us there is a need for a culture of revolt, for without it the human psyche is in danger of atrophying and withering away. Speaking needs to revolt against the culture of ‘the show,’ against rigid symbolic structures and against homogenous identities. Even as Sue seeks a better life for her daughter, societies patterns and structures force a repetition of practice. It’s as if a predetermined mark of Cain resides on the forehead of Dana Lynn Formby’s characters and they are powerless against it. Revolution comes in the form of an alternate identity. In a running theme, the writer make a horrific parallel between the white knight savior of the Power Ball and the white knight Savior of Education. Same things, says Dana Lynn Formby; different styles of the same thing.


Despite all the tragedy of the characters, American Beauty Shop is a joyful, funny journey into these women’s lives. Director Anna McGrath plays down the mise en scene and performances to call forth an intimate and sensitive emotional journey. When the climax reaches us, its build has been detailed and therefore we experience it in a tumult. The slow escalation is a bit of a risk dramatically, but it works to emphasise the vicissitude in daily life. McGrath allows the writing to draw us into close bonds with the cast members. She is well supported by the fine performances she brings into the room, particularly Amanda Stephens Lee who gives a powerful performance as Sue, carrying the bulk of the play’s tension in her character. However, one of the great joys of American Beauty Shop is the accomplished performances on display from each cast member. Charmaine Bingwa’s reliable charismatic power in the role of Meg, Caitlin Burley’s intensity and focus in the role of Judy, Jill McKay’s experience, sophistication and exuberance in the role of Helen and Janine Watsons divine vehemence and embodiment of every role she plays, here as Doll. All the cast and creatives work well under Anna McGrath’s direction to bring theatre to the stage that tells, not just women in the South’s stories, but the collective story of us all.

There are many joys to be had at The Kings Cross theatre, and American Beauty Shop is yet another in a year that has delivered on this theatres promise for thought provoking works of diversity and importance. And so it follows that American Beauty Shop is another reason to make the very pleasant journey to the third floor of the Kings Cross Hotel.