Iris Dauterman’s “Hatpin Panic,” a Fringe Curated Series production at the Capital Fringe Festival, is an unfortunately relevant play. Over the past century, women have seized the right to vote, won reproductive freedoms that freed them from oppressive marriages, claimed high office and high ranks in the business world, and gained the ability to fight in combat. And yet, they are just as much the target of male street harassment as in the first days of the 20th century.
…director Jenny McConnell Frederick has created an admirable production.
The 65-minute play cleverly juxtaposes politically bold women from a century ago with those of today. Her five actors start out as a secret cell training in self-defense techniques, masquerading as a temperance group in order to be able to rent a room. But even their strong-willed leader, played by Karen Lange, is at first incredulous when her students complain about the “mashers” who harass them on New York’s streets and streetcars. Can’t they just walk faster, she asks, or dress a bit more drably?
Lange’s higher-class woman, not a streetcar regular, is soon convinced that the masher threat is real and ubiquitous. She points out to the others that they all have concealed weapons on their persons whenever out in the streets — the long pins keeping their hats on their heads.
Flash forward to today, when two women make plans to attend a SlutWalk event. “No man has a right to tell me how I shall dress and what I shall wear,” activist Nan Davis declared, defending the right to bear hatpins against a threatened Chicago ban a century ago. (Yes, the “panic” was a real phenomenon.) As Dauterman writes in her playwright’s note, that is “something that you might see on a protest sign today.”
Dauterman’s women of the past wield their hatpins in self-defense, and it is they, not the men stalking them, who are declared a public menace. One of her women of today is going public with sexual impropriety charges against a powerful congressman, and she is the one whose personal morals and actions are put on trial.
“Hatpin Panic” is a strong but uneven work. Some of the conversations turn into expositions, with more told than shown. This is more common in the present-day scenes, which are dialogue-based, than in the past scenes that show the hatpin brigade at war.
One perceptive scene shows a modern woman reading an essay by a man from some decades ago; claiming a bit too loudly to be on the side of women, he mansplains away harassment and exposes himself as a white knight, there to protect these delicate creatures. But it’s not altogether clear why she is reading the essay to begin with. There are a few scenes like these, where the intent is clear and the writing solid, but the action not fully justified.
These rough bits can be smoothed over in future productions. For now, director Jenny McConnell Frederick has created an admirable production. Lange, a veteran of Fringe and many other D.C.-area companies, is the cast standout, making shifts in character (from her upper-class matron to an Irish immigrant, and to men on the streetcar and the Tinder screen) seamlessly. Sarah Gavitt and Alana Dodds Sharp are also impressive, especially in the climactic scene where Gavitt’s woman of the past and Sharp’s woman of today cross paths.
Running Time: 65 minutes.
Advisory: Recommended for all ages.
“Hatpin Panic” at Arena Stage Strawberry, 1101 Sixth Street SW in Washington, will run through July 20. For tickets and more information, click here.