SALT LAKE CITY — It should be no surprise to anyone that sexual harassment and assault has perverted American society for a long time. With the recent eruption of the #MeToo movement, these issues are now more prominent than ever. Directed by Lisa Hall Hagen, and assisted by Elizabeth Golden, Sackerson delves into this harsh reality with Scarlet, a new play by Sam H. Freeman. The play, likely gaining its name from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, is powerful and heart-rending.
A note from one of the actor’s states, “1 in 3 women experience sexual assault [a claim I confirmed with a simple Google search]. But nearly all women are taught to be ashamed of themselves.” She goes on to say that the play has “taught me that I have complete ownership over my body, and I hope it’ll do the same for you.” I can attest that it did so for me. I was able to share this experience with a few friends. After the production, we discussed our thoughts and impressions, which included some harsh words and heightened emotions. However, the hour or two long discussion makes Scarlet an automatic success in my opinion, and proved that the play affected all of us, even more than we may have initially thought. Looking back, this has reaffirmed my feelings about the power contained in live theatre and how impactful it can be.
Scarlet, a female college student, wakes up one morning to a hangover after a night of partying that feels all too familiar. This is soon to be the least of her worries, however, as she realizes a graphic video of her has been posted online, and all over social media. Phrases like “open your mouth,” and “show us your tits” are heard coming from the video. It is also clear that Scarlet was too drunk to consent and has no recollection of the experience. It takes three days of Scarlet’s and her boyfriend’s efforts for the video to be taken down, which the men involved in creating and posting the video refuse to do. Three days can seem like an eternity for such a scandal, and now everyone on campus knows about the video. She becomes incessantly harassed, getting calls day and night to the point she has to change her phone number. Scarlet’s entire life is turned upside down by these events. She ultimately moves, changes her name, and assumes a new identity to try and cope and move on from her trauma.
Scarlet emphasizes how breakups and other times of hardship can so easily cause emotional instability, leading to poor and impulsive decision making. Scarlet is herself in a non-healthy and vengeful state after her boyfriend breaks up with her, and she posts private pictures of him online. She quickly realizes her mistake and takes the photos down. However, she later confronts the ex-boyfriend about these pictures, and it is revealed that he didn’t care much. He and his friends had a good laugh from it and it seemed to not affect him at all, showing a distinct contrast of how society treats men and women differently when it comes to sex. We’re all familiar with the double standard that women are seen as “sluts” from having many sexual partners, while men are considered “studs.” Similarly, men are often described as the cliché “good guy,” despite their behaviors.
Scarlet also explores how technology and smart phones have changed the situation around sexual assault. Social media can certainly be damaging if unwanted photos or videos are posted, and things like bullying and callout culture are increasingly easier to find. Scarlet not only deals with this online, but also has friends who tell her variations of “you did get really drunk though,” “the way you dress gives off an impression,” and “you should have been more careful.” They try to make excuses for why this terrible thing happened to Scarlet. The message provided throughout the play, and I believe what Scarlet comes to realize in the end, is that these excuses are all asinine, and of course do not warrant assault or harassment.
The equally skilled actors in this production are Merry Magee, Hailey Nebeker, Whitney Black, and Kat Hawley. They all play Scarlet, as the play is simply one character portrayed by four actors. The actors all tell the story together, even at times talking over each other. Each actor seems to represent a different aspect of Scarlet’s personality, though they seamlessly fit together as well. It is fascinating to be able to see more emotion and thought process through this tactic. There is much more to be gained of the character’s experience than would be otherwise as I could see difficult emotions and desires conflicting with each other, as is often the complicated human experience. There are moments the actors depict Scarlet displaying intense vulnerability, and in these moments my heart ached for her. They also provide just enough humor to get the audience through the heavy performances.
Choreographed by Chantelle Wells, the movement and dance elements in the production were done well. I enjoyed the provocative dancing in the opening scene, and felt it set the tone as the audience learns Scarlet has had many sexual partners, and that she enjoys having sex. The movement throughout was evocative and played a vital role at times to set the mood, or change the current atmosphere. There is not much set design to speak of, although the lighting is respectable for the simplicity of the set, and the use of chairs as set pieces was done nicely. The simplicity is perfectly suitable for the play and the modest yoga studio it is performed in.
Dealing with such heavy subject matter, much of the play is upsetting. As I watched, I wondered if my reaction was unique. I don’t believe it is, and I think that is precisely the point. Even without experiencing Scarlet’s exact situation, many women will have experienced some form of harassment or assault, possibly to a lesser degree of far worse, making Scarlet deeply relatable for many. During one particularly intense scene, one of the actors’ states, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” This is not the first time I have heard this phrase, although this time it was the most powerful. It was in this moment that I realized my nails were digging into the skin on my arm because the fear and acknowledgement of the truth of this statement was so palpable.
I don’t think I am giving anything away by saying the play ends hopeful. Scarlet realizes that “sex should be celebrated, not punished.” After years of dealing with the pain and trauma caused from her experiences, she is finally empowered and able to tell her story. That is where society is right now. People are finally coming forward in droves to tell their own stories, and the public is just beginning to grasp the scope of the problem with sexual harassment, assault, and sex-shaming culture. People’s views and behaviors on these topics need to change if anyone expects to live in a world where people are safe and equal. Thanks to Sackerson and all those involved for providing this enlightening and powerful drama to lead us in the right direction.
Full disclosure: One of the producers of this production (Dave Mortensen) is the founder of Utah Theatre Bloggers Association and a member of its board of directors. As a board member he is in charge solely of the technical functioning of the web site. Mr. Mortensen had no involvement with the writing or editing of this piece. Honest criticism was encouraged.
Donate to Utah Theatre Bloggers Association today and help support theatre criticism in Utah. Our staff work hard to be an independent voice in our arts community. Currently, our goal is to pay our reviewers and editors. UTBA is a non-profit organization, and your donation is fully tax deductible.