At a social gathering, if you were to causally ask, “Can you think of a film or novel that includes any mention of menstruation,” it’s likely that the first (and often only) reply would be “Carrie.” In both movie versions (Brian DePalma’s 1976 classic and the made-for-TV treatment in 2002 by David Carson) as well as Stephen King’s 1974 novel upon which all subsequent versions are based, the opening scene features the menstrually ignorant Carrie getting her first period in the shower of her high school locker room. The response by the other girls is a quintessential “mean girls” moment: they pelt her with tampons and pads as they chant in evil glee, “Plug it up! Plug it up!”
Now, as they like to say in horror movie tradition, “She’s back!” This time the story is given a Broadway musical treatment. The new production, which just concluded a well attended run at the off-Broadway Lucille Lortel Theater on Christopher Street, was a remounted version of an earlier staging attempt in 1988 that was a colossal failure. It had only five performances and became a cautionary tale of everything to avoid with producing a Broadway show.
The new and improved “Carrie” employs most of the songs and book of the earlier version but cuts back on the gore and Gothic elements, shifting the emphasis to relationships and character. In doing so menstruation takes on greater significance than in any of the earlier iterations, including Stephen King’s original novel. The play evokes Eve’s Curse in all its primordial essence.
Actually, there are two themes and plot lines at work in the play, and one is far more affecting that the other. One involves Carrie’s plight amidst her adolescent peers who are crudely stereotyped as either slut, air head, dumb jock, nice jock, naïf or the solitary good girl with a conscience. Scenes involving Carrie and this crew are predictable and unmemorable. However, the scenes where Carrie’s relationship with her mother is developed are riveting. And it is in these scenes where the deep significance of menstruation in a girl’s life, in her relationship with her mother, and in her sense of her place in the world are explored. The staging, costuming, lighting, and especially the operatic delivery of the aria “When There’s No One,” by Carrie’s mother (Marin Mazzie) lay bare the social and psychological meaning of Carrie’s menarche
In part, the elevation of the mother-daughter relationship may be due to the powerful performances of Marin Mazzie and Molly Ransom who plays Carrie. Both have riveting presence, and their duets churn with love, conflict, and torment. Carrie’s confrontation with her mother over her failure to provide her daughter with any preparation for the onset of her period, her plaintive cry, “Why didn’t you tell me?” and her mother’s fanatical response are movingly captured in their duet, “And Eve Was Weak.”
A common criticism of King’s novel is that it associates menstruation with fury, danger and destruction, a macabre extension of discredited Freudian notions of menstrual hysteria. While not completely eschewing these bleak associations, the musical at least softens and complicates them by focusing on Carrie’s desperate striving to become a fully realized young woman which, tragically, requires her to reject and, ultimately, to kill her oppressive, dominating mother.
Some might find he final confrontation between mother and daughter over the top for its pumped up Grand Guignol evocation of blood and horror, but I found it deeply moving.
As her mother thrusts a butcher knife into the cowering Carrie, desperate to keep her daughter from the sin of female sexuality and in fear of losing her, the only way Carrie can try to defend herself is to reach out her hand toward her mother’s heart and, marshalling her telekinetic power one last time, clutch her hand into a fist.
As the genre requires, they die in one another’s arms and, in a closing scene, life goes on for the survivors of Carrie’s rage.