Sans Merci featuring Alisha Spielman (photo credit Titus Winters)

Sans Merci featuring Alisha Spielman (photo credit Titus Winters)

As the audience finds their seats, a young woman reclines on a couch, listening to headphones.

And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!

The latest dream I ever dream’d

On the cold hill’s side.

Rain lashes the window. This silent, melancholy scene is interrupted by a rap on the door. The young woman rises from the couch and limps over to it. An older woman in a not-so-fashionable pastel colored poncho enters and introduces herself as Elizabeth, Tracy’s mother. Three years after her daughter’s rape and murder in the jungles of Colombia, Elizabeth has travelled from Chicago to L. A. to find out exactly what happened from the last person to hear her daughter’s voice.

Kelly and Tracy’s story is recounted in flashbacks between tense small talk and herbal tea. Tracy and Kelly met in a feminist literature class at UC Irvine. Tracy was half way through a presentation on John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” when she had a panic attack and ran out of the room. Kelly followed, and the seed of a love affair was planted. Tracy, a bookish introvert who appears afraid of her own voice, idolized Tracy’s passionate activism. For her part, Kelly was enchanted by Tracy’s love of Keats. When Kelly told Tracy she was planning to go to Colombia with a crew of students and documentarians to protest Occidental Petroleum’s oil drilling operation on the sacred, ancestral lands of the U’wa natives, Tracy insisted she come with.

Elizabeth, a conservative Republican from the Midwest, openly admits she is hostile to Kelly’s West Coast “liberal lifestyle.” In the first fifteen minutes she presents herself as a hard-nosed realist, the kind of woman who would buy gas from Occidental to show her support for global capitalism. It takes her no time at all to draw an admission from Kelly that the love she and Tracy shared was more than Platonic — and then to trash their love as moral turpitude. But Elizabeth’s intellect and wit hint that she may be more like her daughter than she might admit. Elizabeth’s love of Keats (she did a master’s degree in English Lit), which she instilled in her daughter, points to an aesthetic spirit hiding beneath her narrow, pragmatic Chicago worldview.

With a setup like this, you might think Sans Merci is a tragic twist on The New Normal, or a polemic on identity politics and patriarchy. But Sans Merci is, in fact, a play about mourning. Both Elizabeth and Kelly are devastated by Tracy’s loss, and the emotional weight of the play derives from their shared grief. This is not to say, however, that the story of two people who have lost someone and who are at odds over the meaning of their individual sorrows is somehow universal, or that this isn’t a feminist play about sexual identity. Neither Kelly nor Tracy could be replaced by a male character.

Alisha Spielman, Rachael Hip-Flores, and Susan Ferrara (p.c. Titus Winters)

Alisha Spielman, Rachael Hip-Flores, and Susan Ferrara (p.c. Titus Winters)

When Elizabeth accuses Kelly’s feminism of disingenuousness, saying her type doesn’t want equality — it wants superiority — it is more than just a cheap, right-wing talking point. To understand its full significance, you have to understand more than Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” Keats died of tuberculosis in Rome on 23 February 1821. His admirer and fellow Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley died on July 8th, 1822, less than a month before his 30th birthday.  Shelley drowned in a sudden storm while sailing back from Leghorn to Lerici, Italy in his schooner, the Don Juan. Legend has it he washed onto shore with a copy of Keats’s poems in his back pocket. Keats and Shelley (and Byron’s) zeal and idealism are the cornerstone of the Romantic legend of young, beautiful artists dying for a lost cause.

Mary Shelley, Percy’s young widow, wrote a story about a Romantic idealist who wanted to change to world: Frankenstein. In that novel, a young man with the best and purest of intentions unleashes an unspeakable horror on his friends and family. When Frankenstein’s monster meets his creator in the middle of the story, he tells his father-creator that he learned English — and morality — by reading Milton’s Paradise Lost. Frankenstein’s monster is certainly not a feminist, even if he is, figuratively speaking, a victim of The Patriarchy. (After all, most of his victims are women.) But is Eve? After eating the forbidden fruit, Eve says:

But to Adam in what sort

Shall I appeer? shall I to him make known

As yet my change, and give him to partake

Full happiness with mee, or rather not,

But keep the odds of Knowledge in my power

Without Copartner? so to add what wants

In Femal Sex, the more to draw his Love,

And render me more equal, and perhaps,

A thing not undesireable, somtime

Superior: for inferior who is free?

Though we sympathize with Tracy’s fury at her tormenters, her final, anguished speech is profoundly ironic: “We’re here to protect. … Protect you. We’re good. You bastards! Murderers! You’re wrong! What you did — you should die for it! I should kill you. Bite through your skin and tear off your face!” In her final moment she finds her voice, but it is not the wilting, melancholy voice of Keats, it is the revolutionary, I’ll-torture-you-for-the-good-of-the-world voice of Frankenstein (that is, of P. B. Shelley), which is the voice of one who appears to be weak but wants superiority, for inferior who is free?

No one should be the object of sexual violence, and traditional, patriarchal societies oftentimes react to turbulence and social upheaval by targeting women for special abuse. But it is clear in Tracy’s ultimate conversion that the liberal ideal of tolerance and empathy has limits, and that those limits are often masked by the feel good rhetoric activists use to justify themselves. Reading the beginning of the play through the end, we have to ask, is Kelly the belle dam sans merci — the beautiful, cruel woman who leads a young (wo)man to her death? Or is it Tracy? In the last analysis it is Kelly who is lying on the hillside, pining for her lost love, and Tracy was the radicalized activist, the do-gooder who discovers in herself a revolutionary zeal that will only be quenched with blood.

Sans Merci is a powerful play, powerfully produced. The unfolding story compels your attention for two hours, and the final, cathartic scene sent a chill up my spine. The spare and melancholy set, the sound of rain that waxes and wanes throughout the show, and the intense performances by the actors intensify the forboding atmosphere of Sans Merci until the last, profoundly disturbing moment.

Through May 18th at 4th Street Theatre