Emily Acker’s Boycott Esther, now in its world premiere with Azuka Theatre, masterfully tackles the issues of #MeToo in a play that should be necessary viewing.
Bill Cosby, Louis C.K., Harvey Weinstein: These famous men became infamous when their accusers came forward, alleging sexual misconduct and crimes. #MeToo became a rallying cry on social media, and it seemed like the survivors of these men’s abuses were finally getting a kind of justice, even if just in the court of public opinion.
Though Cosby and Weinstein seemed tamped down for good, with the former in jail and the latter awaiting trial and having lost his company to bankruptcy, Louis C.K. has been slithering back onto comedy stages to make surprise appearances in a bid for a comeback—much to the chagrin of many. But in the case of men who transgress but are remorseful, is there room for forgiveness? And what happens to those who consider extending forgiveness?
A career in limbo
Boycott Esther follows Esther Lehman (a magnificent Alison Ormsby), a 23-year-old social-media influencer whose online content has caught the eye of major producer Barry Bloom (Stephen Rishard). She is poised for her big break with a television show produced by Bloom’s entertainment company when a series of sexual allegations against Bloom come to light, jeopardizing her show’s future. An in-person meeting with Bloom and a subsequent essay penned by the young artist find Esther in the spotlight—and on the cultural chopping block.
For Boycott Esther, Acker drew inspiration from her own life: She was developing a TV show with the Weinstein Company when the New York Times published the first exposé on the Weinstein scandal, and her own artistic opportunities went down with the company. The writer deviates from her lived experience and treads a different path for Esther, considering the dangers and implications of having an internet presence; cancel culture; and how we speak to each other behind the relative security of a computer screen. Acker fills every available minute of this one-act full-length play, probing the varying directions of some of the most complicated moral quandaries since the advent of the internet. But her writing is as thrilling as it is judicious, and Boycott Esther is complex but not overly full.
What is activism?
Ormsby imbues Esther with charm and just enough youthful cockiness; it’s no surprise that this young woman would have hundreds of thousands of social-media followers and a TV show in the works. She spends the majority of the play in her New York City studio apartment (set design by Jorge Cosineau), a shoebox on a raised platform that has just enough room for a bed, a toilet steps away, and a coffee maker and hot plate on her writing desk. Even in these confines, Ormsby dominates the theater, but easily shifts to a compelling apprehension when confronting Bloom in a coffee shop or facing Mary (Alexandra Espinoza), a producer whom Esther befriended at the Bloom company before its spiral downward.
Bloom is not an enviable role, but Rishard ably takes it on, garnering an impossible sympathy in one breath while making the hair on the back of your neck stand up the next. Espinoza is firm and unflappable as Mary. Little focus is given to Mary and her journey, but she’s a whip-smart foil to Esther, with lines like “Hiding behind a dilapidated laptop is not activism.”
The Internet and the shadows
Director Maura Krause deftly negotiates the tricky logistics of Boycott Esther. Most of Esther’s interactions with others occur via screens, with only select scenes occurring with Rishard and Espinoza; all other phone calls and video chats with her friends and family (which include cameos by some Philly favorites) have been prerecorded. Through Krause’s direction, the onscreen convos are as alive and organic as if the actors were in front of us. Jorge Cousineau’s graphic design of rushing pixelated images on a floor-to-ceiling triptych of scrims brings the world of the internet to frightening scale.
At first, I was flummoxed by the play’s ending. But seemingly innocuous actions can have the most insidious and devastating consequences. The first unwanted male gaze causes an irrevocable shift in a woman—the realization that there are those who believe a woman’s body does not solely belong to her.
Maybe forgiveness for these men is possible, or even a path to redemption. Boycott Esther does not take a hard stance on this or provide an easy solution. But I stand with the women who have been harmed and want their stories to remain front and center. The men can remain in the shadows.
What, When, Where
Boycott Esther. By Emily Acker, directed by Maura Krause. Through May 19, 2019, at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 563-1100 or www.azukatheatre.org.
The Drake Theatre complex is fully accessible. Wheelchair seating, companion seating, and mobility and audiovisual-accessible seating is available for all performances. Seating requests can be made prior to the performance by calling (215) 568-8079 or emailing [email protected]. The Drake has gender-neutral restrooms.