Ursula Invents Old Woman

Ursula K Le Guin, noted author of A Wizard of Earthsea, is visited by an alien adopting her form. The extraterrestrial wants the answer to the question: “What is old woman?” This, eventually, is the plot of Ursula Invents Old Woman. I say “eventually” because of the length of time it takes to get there.

I get what Ursula Invents Old Woman is trying to do – but I’m not convinced this is the way to do it.

The audience spend the first five minutes listening to BBC radio in the dark – I’m not sure why. The eponymous writer then comes out for about a minute before we are treated to an odd, sloppy interpretive dance section by the alien. Then the plot starts.

This beginning is somewhat indicative of the writing which tends to be too fast-paced, unsubtle and simplistic. The line “I am finding this very disturbing,” actually appears in the script. The supposed comedy comes from the activities of the alien whose approximation of human speech relies on the use of tangentially relevant advertising clichés. Once his speech patterns become predictable and his inhumanity pushes the character out of sympathetic range, it’s not particularly effective. This is a problem especially once he becomes the intended focal point of audience emotion.

The writing has some upsides. There’s an interesting running theme about masculinity as the default state of being. This theme is examined through the comparison between Le Guin and Ernest Hemingway. However, these highlights are lost among the rushed plot which focuses more on telling than showing, not to mention the inclusion of a strange E.T.-esque sex act.

Performances are a bit of a mixed bag. Both actors bring strong characters, particularly Mason Rosenthal as the alien, whose physicality matches the strangeness of his dialogue. Marcia Rosenthal (who plays Le Guin) has more dramatic subtlety. I particularly liked the section where she slips into a comforting Wisconsin accent, until I found out that Le Guin and her family are actually from California where the accent is very different. With both actors there is a tendency to switch modes too suddenly instead of slipping from state to state in an organic way.

I get what Ursula Invents Old Woman is trying to do – it addresses the lack of attention and understanding for women past childbearing age. But I’m not convinced this is the way to do it.

Reviews by Bennett Bonci

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The Blurb

Ursula K Le Guin, award-winning science fiction author, is in the midst of a major period of writer's block. Then her world is turned upside down when she is visited by her biggest fan: an agender being from another galaxy. In their time together this unlikely pair will have intergalactic intercourse, practice formlessness, and invent old woman. This original work is co-created by three artists of different ages: Marcia Ferguson – Director of Theatre Arts, UPenn; Mason Rosenthal – FringeArts Fellow, NYU Faculty; and trans-identified playwright M J Kaufman – Huntington Theatre Playwriting Fellow, MFA Yale.