February 20, 2019

“Bicycle Face” Continues Passage Theatre’s Solo Flights Series; Hannah Van Sciver Portrays Women from Past, Present, and Future

“BICYCLE FACE”: Passage Theatre has continued its Solo Flights series with “Bicycle Face.” The show is written and performed by Hannah Van Sciver (above), and directed by David O’Connor. (Photo by Kate Raines)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Passage Theatre continued its annual Solo Flights series with Bicycle Face, which was presented February 15-17. Written and performed by Hannah Van Sciver, and set in Philadelphia, this provocative monologue is a work of performance art. Multimedia is blended with live performance — dramatic and musical — to examine cultural attitudes in the late 19th century, the present, and a hypothetical future.

Created in 2015, the show premiered in June of that year in the Philadelphia SoLow Festival. Subsequent performances have included the Razor’s Edge Solo Performance Festival in New Orleans and the United Solo Theatre Festival at Theatre Row in New York City.

Upon being seated, the audience is presented with an on-screen collage. The images include photographs of female musicians; recent political events; and a variety of quotes, many posted on social media. “It is never too late to check yourself and right your wrongs,” advises one quote. “Don’t mess with her, she is fearless,” warns another. These images are presented in rapid, rather dizzying succession.

A white bicycle has been placed directly in front of the screen. On one end of the stage is a black guitar. On the other end is a mannequin on which has been placed a 19th century outfit: a prim skirt and elegant red jacket.

An exuberant performer, Van Sciver is adept at initiating, and maintaining, immediate rapport with the audience, making attentive use of eye contact throughout the performance. “How’s everybody doing?” the monologist asks when starting the show, repeating the question more loudly, as if dissatisfied with the response.

Van Sciver portrays three distinct characters. Prudence, a wife and mother, is a rather formal, proper woman of her time (1896). However, she has taken up cycling; she remarks that the pastime has “given me a thing of my own to look forward to,” despite the disapproval with which her enjoyment of it is met.

By contrast, Tess is a contemporary, feisty professional photographer with a passion for collages. One of her clients is a bride, which prompts her to contemptuously remark that the “capitalist hoopla” of marriage is “phasing out.”

In the distant future (the year 2136) the coldly analytical Professor K, who only exists as a voice heard over the sound system, teaches a feminist theory course which serves as a framing device for the show. The course is taught online — via the “noosphere” — and focuses on Prudence and Tess, to examine cultural mores and changing attitudes toward gender roles, in their respective eras.

The sound design by Van Sciver and director David O’Connor gives Professor K’s voice an eerie, otherworldly quality, and makes it difficult to discern whether the character is male or female.

Prudence is examined by a Dr. (Arthur) Shadwell. Because the mannequin portrays Dr. Shadwell (as it does all of the supporting characters), the checkup is an entertaining bit of puppetry by Van Sciver.

Shadwell (1854-1936) is real; through a projection we learn that he wrote an article containing the phrase that gives the show its title. Shadwell warns against a “peculiar strained, set look” that he called the “bicycle face.” He adds, “Those who have suffered conceal the fact as far as possible, and especially from the doctor, for fear of being forbidden their ‘beloved bikes.’ That is noticeably the habit of young women, who are the chief sufferers.”

In turn, Tess photographs cyclists in the Philly Naked Bike Ride, and writes a song about the participants. In addition to writing and acting, Van Sciver is a musician who creates incidental music for plays, and plays percussion as part of the band Gracie and the So Beautifuls. The show dramatizes this, making Tess a singer-songwriter (who performs, the audience is told, in many train stations), as well as a photographer.

The song initially discusses “men and women,” but hastens to substitute, “people.” Tess later creates a mash-up of two photographs — the bride, and one of the men from the Philly Naked Bike Ride — and declares that the audience can “ride with it or get run over.”

Having contrasted a woman from a repressive era, who liberates herself via a bicycle; and a woman from a comparatively permissive time, who nevertheless self-edits a song to conform to changing perceptions of gender, Professor K probingly asks, “Were they happier? Are you happier?” Van Sciver evasively blinks; the show leaves it to the audience to answer the question.

Van Sciver’s writing is astute, affording the production scope for subtle thematic layers. For example, it is notable that both Dr. Shadwell and Professor K. clinically reduce Prudence and Tess from living, breathing human beings to specimens to be examined and discussed. In turn, neither appears as a flesh-and-blood character; Shadwell is portrayed by the mannequin, and Professor K is a disembodied voice.

The show ends by projecting one final photograph: a 19th-century woman standing with a bicycle. This lone, peaceful image from the past is a marked contrast to the overwhelming collage from our time, which opened the show.

Similarly, Sara Outing’s costumes contrast a stately past with a sleek, edgy present and future. Van Sciver begins the show in the contemporary black outfit, slacks and a tank top, and ends it wearing the period costume. Time is a crucial element, but a linear depiction of it is avoided. The show, aptly, is cyclical, beginning and ending in Prudence’s time.