Courtney and Kathleen: A Riot Act
nytheatre.com review by Robert Attenweiler
August 17, 2011
It’s not uncommon for theatergoers to come away from a show pondering life’s big questions. I found a new one to ponder after seeing Courtney and Kathleen (A Riot Act), the new punk and grunge-fueled play written and directed by Liz Thaler: “why has it taken this long for there to be a play with Courtney Love as a character?” The answer (probably) is that Love would kick—and, yes, probably sue—the tar out of anyone who tried. So one has to appreciate Thaler’s daring, as well as her sense of drama, in choosing to tie part of her play—the “Courtney” part—to the infamously volatile front-woman of the band Hole. Bad behavior, after all, can make for good theater.
Courtney is only half of the play’s title, though. The “Kathleen” in question is Kathleen Hanna of the Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill and the two women become close (and then, unsurprisingly, not) as they both work the live music circuit of the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s. We see them meet at a party at the house Kathleen shares with Kurt (Cobain, the late Nirvana frontman). Courtney is a ball of screaming drunken unpredictability who says to Kathleen (in one of the play’s best lines) that she, Kathleen, has to be nice to her, Courtney, because everyone else is mean to her and she hears that Kathleen’s a real rebel. We then follow these two women over the next several years as we see Courtney become famous, see both women react to Kurt’s suicide and then watch as their relationship breaks down.
Kathleen is the angry idealist (“Riot Grrrl” being the label used to refer to female-led bands that embraced the punk aesthetic of musical message over musical mastery and used their songs to push back against the male dominated punk, rock and the rock that would become known as “grunge” scenes). Courtney is the angry populist who embraces fame even as it threatens to destroy her. So, the play’s conflict is mainly one of ideas and, because of that, too much of it is spent with the characters—mainly Kathleen—going through the talking points of their ideologies. The play then switches approaches half-way through and begins revolving scenes around found text from interviews, a video bathroom “confessional” and even an original Riot Grrl-inspired song to end the show. This all lends Courtney and Kathleen (A Riot Act) an unfocused quality that left me without a clear idea of what Thaler’s intention is with this play.
The scenes between Courtney and Kathleen present an interesting, if naturalistic, feminist odd couple. Emilie Soffe has a youthful, hard-edged buoyancy that makes her Kathleen believable and likable. Heather Lee Harper’s Courtney is sometimes a little too screechy, but she’s fun to watch as she stomps around and later really nails Courtney’s singing voice in the play’s finale.
The later scenes remove us by way of third person accounts and the play’s finale has all of the actors on stage playing “Song for a Girl Riot,” written by Colin Kindley and Thaler, where they seem to no longer be their historical namesakes as they make contemporary feminist commentary on music and society, suggesting that a girl riot is still very much needed.
While Courtney and Kathleen (A Riot Act) is unfocused and a little preachy with its ideas, there is plenty to like. The setting of the play and the characters from that era are pure gold, the actors give spirited performances and I did like the links “Song for a Girl Riot” made between the early-'90s and now. Should Thaler continue to develop this piece, I’d love to see where she might take it.