“The Appointment” Skewers the Hypocrisy of the Abortion Debate

It’s usually the anti-abortion activists—the sign-wavers outside clinics, the tellers of post-op horror stories—who want to show you, in great detail, what a fetus looks like. There’s something about the peach-and-hibiscus shock of flesh and blood, about the smallness of that embryonic presence: the picture is supposed to appall you into some new way of thinking and feeling about the politics of birth. It’s only right, then, that the first big laugh of the raucously pro-choice musical “The Appointment,” by the Philadelphia-based theatre collective Lightning Rod Special, directed by Eva Steinmetz at WP Theatre, is earned with a similar kind of representation.

When the curtain opens, there’s a fetus onstage, moving slowly and subtly, as if bobbing in fluid. It’s soon joined by several others. We know they’re fetuses precisely because of those images we’ve seen used as agitprop, even if we’ve strained to avoid them. The fetuses are played by members of Lightning Rod Special—Katie Gould, Jaime Maseda, Lee Minora, Brett Ashley Robinson, Scott R. Sheppard, Alice Yorke, and Danny Wilfred, all vibrating with talent and hip smarts—wearing skintight, skin-colored suits marbled with purplish-gray veins. From their tummies sprout ropelike umbilical cords.

These outfits, funny and gross, are emblematic of the show’s approach to abortion—instead of treating it as an “issue” to be regarded from a respectful and pious distance, “The Appointment” sniffs out taboos and hunts them down at the pace of a sprint. Here’s a taboo for you: the chorus of fetuses turn out to be the play’s main characters—or, at least, they get the most stage time. They sing and dance and tell jokes (the book is by Yorke, Steinmetz, Sheppard, and Alex Bechtel, who also wrote the music); they engage in crowd work with the audience. They’re obnoxious and needy, selfish and demanding. The fetuses are stage-hogging hams—which makes sense, given how much of the national political spotlight, in Supreme Court hearings and state legislative chambers and on referendum ballots, they’ve become accustomed to.

They even talk about their futures. When one cries out, “I was going to cure cancer!,” another retorts, “Oh Reginald you’re a gambler not a doctor!” Yet another forecasts a humbler fate: “I was going to be on ‘Tiger King’!” The only way to herd them offstage is to give them the “hook.” That show-biz cliché has a pointed meaning here. A glinting surgical instrument shows up time and again to stop the incessant fetal chatter.

“The Appointment” is, in truth, less a musical than a kind of cabaret or variety show. Think of a gleefully spiky, feminist version of “The Carol Burnett Show,” or a special episode of the early, punk-fuelled “Saturday Night Live.” (The big, padded heads of the fetus costumes reminded me more than once of Eddie Murphy’s Gumby getup.) The only real story comes when the fetuses are offstage. A woman, Louise Peterson, played with stoic calm by Yorke, goes to a clinic to get an abortion. She wears a paper gown and is attended to by a cheerful, professional medical assistant named Oliver, played by Wilfred. (“Ooh I like your socks!” he says.) Over and over, Louise is asked her date of birth: “07/24/89,” she keeps saying with a cool patience.

Assuming that the action of the play is happening in 2023, Louise is a thirty-three-year-old woman, grown, fully aware of what she’s doing. In what feels like the only totally sincere song of the show, she sings:

I don’t feel confused.
And I don’t feel lazy.
I don’t feel regret.
And I don’t feel fucking dumb.

That’s a sharp contrast with the cautionary video that Louise’s doctor is legally obligated to play for her and the other women with whom she awkwardly sits in the clinic’s waiting room. Dr. Parsons (Sheppard) seems kind, and is palpably mortified by the procedural obstacles he has to put these women through—including a twenty-four-hour waiting period that might be the true span of the play, the fetuses hanging on to one last planetary twirl under the lights. The video shows a long, melodramatic aria sung by regretful former abortion patients, performed, ironically, by the men in Lightning Rod Special’s company. “Get me a razor, so I can erase all the pain,” one of them howls.

Another legal necessity: Louise has to look at a picture—not one of those gruesome hyperreal photographs that show up at rallies but a sonogram. Dr. Parsons asks her to explain what she sees. “I just have to write something down,” he says. The people who make laws like this think, one supposes, that the sonogram image, a staticky moon landing in monochrome, might occasion a last-ditch upheaval in the pregnant woman’s heart. But to Louise the picture is an abstraction. She describes it in a befuddled ekphrasis, like an art student looking at an obscure slide, bringing none of its ideological weight to the task. “I mean it’s blurry. It’s kind of . . . moving a little bit,” she says. “It’s in black and white—I don’t know.”

All this business about images is tricky, and tetchy, and strange. It’s easy to imagine a pro-choice argument against “The Appointment”—that, despite the satiric intentions of its creators, there’s just too much risk involved in representing fetuses as persons, or in airing the arguments of anti-abortionists. The fetuses parrot and parodize pro-choice analogies—inherently visual—about their size. “Guess what, mommy? I’m as big as an olive,” one says. “I’m as big as a hot fudge sundae with a little cherry on top and I’m sweet like one, too. But don’t eat me please!” another pleads.

But the fetuses also paint pictures of life outside the womb. They fantasize about having a nice dad. (“My dream daddy subsidizes my life as an artist.”) They make promises to the women who may or may not bring them to term. “We’ll make you feel so whole—we’re what you dreamed of,” they sing. “Tiny, but filled with soul.” In promotional materials, the members of Lightning Rod Special assert, by way of explaining their rationale for restaging this show, which premièred in 2019, that “the need for people to confront their participation in the systems that got us here is more pressing than ever.” (By “here,” of course, they mean life after the recent repeal of the constitutional right to an abortion, following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision, last summer.)

But the show does something else entirely. Instead of excoriating the audience for its complicity, it mashes our faces into the scattered, swept-aside mess of images and tropes that are linked umbilically with abortion in our minds and cultural memories. It asks us whether it matters, or how much it matters, how we envision the fetus—as a bean, or a taco, or a ghost, or a smear on a screen, or even, most harrowingly, as a person with a daddy and a nascent sense of humor. The play makes you look at all of this, forcing you to court, with squirm-inducing clarity, the imaginings that come by way of looking.

In a poem titled “Orlando,” recently published in The Nation, the writer Megan Fernandes indulges in the same kind of unmournful speculation about what might have become, in an alternate reality, of an aborted child:

. . . I think he’d be
a drummer and wear green. I have no regrets,
but I wonder if he’s waiting in the sky somewhere
or doing blow in another dimension where he’s a rocker
and very much flesh.

Fernandes echoes Anne Sexton, who, considering “this baby that I bleed,” wrote stoically, “Somebody who should have been born / is gone.” The daring, unspoken claim of “The Appointment” is that here, post-Dobbs, with abortion up in the air and out in the open yet again, more perilously than ever, there’s really no harm in pictures or possible futures, counterfactuals or graven images. Let them multiply. You might even get a laugh. ♦

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