Venus & Me 

As sensitive as Aeschylus and Euripedes were to the plight of women, they weren't ready to write stuff like this.

From phrenology to cognitive psychotherapy, the ways of describing and understanding personality have been, over the years, as diverse as people themselves. But very few systems make any attempt to be as lyrical as they are informative. Precious few dances are based on the Enneagram, for example, and Bruno Bettelheim's theories are rarely the basis for pop tunes. Which makes Marin County poet Dorotea Reyna's new play Goddesses, scheduled for this weekend only at Berkeley's Live Oak Theater, rare indeed. Influenced by the work of a prominent Bay Area feminist psychiatrist, Reyna has written a play that is not only exciting for the actors and spectators, but also illustrates a psychological theory with wit, candor, and grace.

Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D., became what Reyna calls a "cultural heroine" with the 1984 publication of her Goddesses in Everywoman: A New Psychology of Women. Trained as a Jungian analyst during the feminist revolution of the '70s, she discovered that traditional psychoanalysis just wasn't adequate to explain the experiences of her female patients. While Freud's ideas about the basic inferiority of women are well-known, some of Jung's ideas aren't much better. In the introduction to her book, Bolen pointed out that Jung's theory of anima/animus allows only that a woman might be capable of analytical or creative thought when the animus -- the "masculine" force -- is strong in her. Bolen's groundbreaking theory, based on the seven main goddesses of Greek antiquity -- six Olympians and the queen of the underworld -- expands Jung's concept of archetypes. Every woman carries all the goddess archetypes within her, Bolen believes, and these rise and fall in prominence according to the external and internal factors in a woman's life: how she's raised and educated, whether she becomes pregnant and raises a child, how she ages. Understanding the archetypes, with all their strengths, weaknesses, and priorities, can offer new insights into the experience of being female.

Bolen divides the Olympian goddess archetypes into three categories: virginal, vulnerable, and alchemical. The virgins -- Athena, Artemis, and Hestia -- do their own thing, largely unaffected by their relationships with others. Their lives are "unpenetrated" by others. Women in whom these archetypes are strong are not literally virginal, Bolen asserts, but tend to put their own desires and goals foremost, whether they're interested in education, career, activism, or spirituality. On the other hand, Persephone, Demeter, and Hera are the "vulnerable" goddesses, more influenced by the needs of others, more focused on being mates, mothers, helpers. Then there's Aphrodite (aka Venus), not surprisingly in a category by herself: The alchemical goddess, she is able to enjoy the company of others without losing herself, staying focused on her own sensual and creative expression.

Reading Bolen's book is a little like reading an astrological guide or any work that encourages the reader to identify her "type": At first it might seem a little odd that women (or men; Bolen has written a companion volume about god archetypes and how they manifest in males) could actually have ancient patterns "embedded" in them. Yet we've absorbed many other aspects of Greek antiquity: Platonic discourse, democracy, language. Why not goddesses?

Stanford alumna Reyna, who as the oldest of seven and a mother herself acknowledges that she's been through a few goddesses so far, encountered Goddesses in Everywoman soon after it was published and was profoundly moved. Crediting her "very Catholic" upbringing and education with her openness to the richness of Greek myths -- "they piqued my imagination because they are such colorful, vivid, stirring stories" -- Reyna was inspired five years ago to write a poetic monologue for Aphrodite. It flowed so easily that she decided to go ahead with the other deities -- first Persephone and Athena, then Hera, Demeter, and Hestia. Oddly enough, Reyna says, she hasn't written a monologue for Artemis, the goddess of the wild places, because that voice does not seem to rise in her. Last year, "quite casually," she submitted the monologues to a festival of one-act plays at Dominican University in San Rafael where she occasionally teaches classes in fiction writing. They were accepted, and the aftermath "was like a feminine adventure story," she says, as she found herself directing a production for the first time while experiencing the thrill of hearing her words coming from the mouths of others.

"I think I died and went to heaven, as a playwright," she says of the auditions. "Because I'm a poet, I was very comfortable and familiar with reading my own work, but to hear actresses read those words, transformed them from poetry into characters."

There's a reason for that. Monologues that read well "cold" in auditions -- pieces that actors can get into without much time for preparation -- are hard to find. Not so those in Goddesses, described by local actress Michelle Randag as "lyrical, musical, and rhythmic." Reading for the part of spouse-hungry Hera, Randag says, was easy because "right off the bat, [Reyna's work] is emotional -- you get it. There are no hidden stairwells. It's all out there." The text is funny as well as earthy and poignant, and so musical that last weekend the actresses performed the first act live on KPFA.

Goddesses' plot vaguely recalls the Judgment of Paris, when the mortal Paris was chosen to decide whether Athena, Hera, or Aphrodite, was the most beautiful of the three. When he chose Aphrodite, she rewarded him with Helen, who was of course married to Menelaus, which started the whole Trojan War and its attendant madness. In Reyna's work, the goddesses pressure a mortal woman, facing forty, to choose which of them shall dominate her life. "She needs a dose of Italy," says Aphrodite, who feels that the woman hasn't lived sensually enough. World-beating Athena, meanwhile, fumes that under the influence of Persephone and Aphrodite, the woman has squandered her gifts, has been more interested in "diaries/coffee shops/revolving beds" than becoming a CEO.

As sensitive as Aeschylus and Euripides were to the plight of women, they weren't ready to write stuff like this. Reyna didn't set out to rewrite the Greeks, but her text does a superb job of creating a feel as classic as it is modern.

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