How ‘Merry Me’ flips the script on sapphic heartthrobs & orgasms

The moment a Black Sapphic angel introduces us to Lieutenant Shane Horne as “God’s gift to lady parts of all shapes, colors, and vintages,” Merry Me promises a wild ride centering on lesbian eros. And it delivers.

Playwright Hansol Jung (Wolf Play) repositions William Wycherly’s 17th-century Restoration comedy The Country Wife on a military base in an unnamed nation after a blackout has left personnel without a purpose and preoccupied with sexual intrigue. Horny lesbian Lt. Horne, an androgynous woman of color with bulging biceps, makes it her mission to satisfy all the women on the base, including herself. Her goal: have as many “merries” (orgasms) as possible. But how will the military men react as she seduces their wives? And what exactly is the agenda of The Angel (Shaunette Renée Wilson) —borrowed from Tony Kushner’s landmark gay play Angels in America—but here queer and Black? 

Shaunette Renee Wilson as The Angel in "Merry Me.'
Shaunette Renée Wilson in “Merry Me.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

Trailblazing director Leigh Silverman (Hurricane Diane ) ably guides Jung’s play, which forgoes victimization, trauma, and tropes we have perhaps come to expect from female-centered theater (think Suzie Miller’s Prima Facie). There is, however, lots of arch wordplay, simulated sex, and — as with the mannered conventions of Restoration comedy — reality flies out the window. 

Characters are named after their dominant traits, for example, Mrs. Sapph Memnon (Nicole Villamil), who Lt. Horne plots to steal from her milquetoast husband, Private Willy Memnon (Ryan Spahn). Horne is a revamp of Wycherley’s Harry Horner and charismatically embodied by nonbinary actor Esco Jouléy. 

This is a production that asks us to center our mirth — while poking fun at a few sacred theater cows, from Shakespeare to Thorton Wilder’s Our Town (returning to Broadway this spring, directed by Kenny Leon, whose Purlie Victorious received raves). Loaded with references and in-jokes as diverse as Wilder, Sappho, Joni Mitchell, Tony Kushner, and the Bard (“The Complete Works of Shakespeare is great for those discovery years between the ages of seven and eleven: my William was rubbed practically spineless!,” confesses Lt. Horne.) 

A group of military characters in a scene from "Merry Me."
(from left) Cindy Cheung, Marinda Anderson, Nicole Villamil, Esco Jouléy, and Shaunett Renée Wilson in “Merry Me.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

Merry Me may be set in the armed forces, but it is not ripped from the headlines or the zeitgeist. So, why are audiences staking out the rush lines at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop? INTO spoke to playwright Hansol Jung and director Leigh Silverman to find out.

What was your first encounter with each other professionally? How did it happen?

Leigh: Hansol had just graduated from Yale from the playwriting program there. And her play Cardboard Piano was being produced at the Humana Festival. At that time, the great Les Waters was running the festival, and he called and asked if I would be interested in meeting Hansol and talking to her about her play … And then I read her play, and I was like, Oh, great, this is a good play, I have to meet with her. And then I met with her and, and she was so really skeptical about directors. She was very tough, saying she had a hard time trusting directors, and I just remember a lot of shady commentary about relationships with directors. And it was the best thing she could have done because it made me really interested in proving her wrong in all the ways, so I said yes. And we found ourselves in Louisville, Kentucky, at the Humana Festival.

Playwright Hansol Jung
Hansol Jung. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan.

What about you, Hansol? 

Hansol: I don’t remember being shady. (Laughs) We started working together when I was just out of school. I learned a lot about how to collaborate with directors and designers through her. There aren’t a lot of directors who will invite the playwright into collaboration with them and ask for feedback. It was that invitation, that awareness that I’m not just the words; I’m also a person. 

What are you trying to achieve with this play, Hansol? 

Hansol: My drive comes from my own volition, what I want to do to the world or the audience, and what my story is. I’ve never done a sex farce or anything like that before; that’s very different and out of my wheelhouse. The Country Wife is quite flat in terms of plot and structure, and that’s where the Greeks came in. I needed more contemporary commentary, and that’s where Angels in America came in. The angel has a puckish, structural role. That sort of became the aesthetic: pulling from anything I could use. 

But the drive was always just to make me laugh. I wasn’t like, Oh my God, we have to center these women. But by default, writing for a queer woman director and trying to match what her desires would be or what she would want to direct means it would be about women. It means the orgasms are taken very seriously. 

Cindy Cheung and Esco Jouley in "Merry Me."
(from left) Cindy Cheung and Esco Jouléy in “Merry Me.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

Merry Me is queer but doesn’t shape its narrative around trauma. Instead, it focuses on the pursuit of pleasure and fun.

Hansol: The ‘victim’ tropes hurt me. When I see them, I’m like, Oh, that again! It’s upsetting to see people who are representing me on screen or stage always go through trauma. I think, hey, I’ll write a new thing where a female has not much trauma. I think that was very important to me. I didn’t want to make Leigh direct a traumatic thing.  

Leigh, when you picked up this script, where did your director’s brain go first?

Leigh: I was simultaneously completely perplexed and wildly dazzled. That combination is very rare. I knew the kinds of plays Hansol was referencing. I knew she had read the Five Lesbian Brothers, and she had read Hurricane Diane, a play I directed for New York Theatre Workshop five years ago. She knew whose shoulders she was standing on in terms of Sapphic culture, and I was like, Wow, and you mashed it with the Greeks and with Angels in America and these other plays. What kind of strange, unbelievably weird play is this? 

Leigh Silverman
Leigh Silverman. Photo courtesy of New York Theatre Workshop.

I knew there was going to be a necessity for this play to have a real farcical Restoration comedy structure that would provide the kind of spine for how the play was going to work. How could the play continue to feel like it just set up a convention and then broke it, set up a new one, and broke it, over and over, and how could that feel delightful and not punishing? And how could we get an audience to understand what Hansol was riffing on even if they didn’t know the specifics of it? 

There were many places where I was like, Oh, this is too insider-y; people won’t understand it. And in almost every case except for a few, I was wrong. Hansol was able to lead them on a journey, and that felt really fun. And then, when I worked with the designer, it was really a question of the right setup so that the words and the jokes could coexist together. Ideas like those flat, silly clouds that are so Restoration comedy-like, telling you the kind of experience that it might be. 

How Hansol constructed the prologue teaches us how to listen and watch the show. The military costumes that we made up, this completely ridiculous army where the insignia is a slingshot. We’re riffing on a thing, but it couldn’t be further from the thing itself. As a North Star, The Muppet Show was a thing that I really held in my heart.

A bedroom scene from "Merry Me."
(from left) Nicole Villamil, Shaunette Renée Wilson, and Ryan Spahn in “Merry Me.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

Hansol, you are from South Korea. Any pop culture influence there?

Hansol: I’ve consumed stories from that culture throughout my childhood. I do have a very commercial sense that I can pull from when needed. I also did a lot of musical theater. I translated American musical comedy into Korean. I feel like I’m always a little bit on the outside of mass culture in Korea or the States. It’s sort of like a liminal space that I’m in, where I’m always pulling from things that are very familiar to me and trying to make them accessible to people who don’t understand them. And that’s what really came into play in writing Merry Me, where there are a lot of references, and I’m aware that not everyone knows any. It’s that work of synthesizing it into a whole play and also making it understandable.

You also did some TV writing on the Tales of the City reboot. What did you learn from that? 

Hansol: The conversation in the room was almost always about generational unity and how to talk about a truthful story that is not traumatic for the queer community. In terms of finding a hook as writers, it’s easy to go there. But there’s always an effort to find celebration; there’s an effort to find joy in living. My North Star with this play was desire. For women, it’s so mysterious. 

In the pursuit of desire—their own and the women’s on the base—the casting of Esco Jouléy is inspired. 

Leigh: Hansol really wrote the play for Esco in a certain way. Esco was the only person who’s ever played Horne and is the only person we could imagine (in the part). When I watched Esco in Wolf Play, I was mesmerized; I was so excited that Hansol had written this part for them. It was interesting because when I got to know Esco a little bit, we talked about the idea of Esco as a nonbinary performer playing a lesbian heartthrob. And Esco was up for the challenge, and they embraced the opportunity. We talked about taking this archetype and subverting it in this way and the power that it can hold. The trance of Esco is a real thing! ♦

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