Posted by: strugglesome | December 2, 2010

Sex Bomb: Theatre Exile’s That Pretty Pretty; or The Rape Play

“I have loads of confidence, except when I feel abused. Then I just stick up my chin and take it. That’s a real woman” pertly declares Jane Fonda, the icon/antagonist/joke/heroine/instigator/deus ex machina/villain/patron saint of Shelia Callaghan’s That Pretty Pretty; or The Rape Play. And if you take home anything from this play, besides the lingering sense that you need a shower to wash off the luridly fascinating glow of voyeurism, Callaghan sure as shooting wants you to take home Fonda’s pithy little line. Said a thousand ways and shown equally as many times over the course of this wild wicked and often darkly comedic fantasia through the world of gender politics and the etiquette of rape, Callaghan makes sure we understand that women get screwed and men want them to take it with a smile, and a lion’s share of dignity. Men want to control women, preferably by violent means, and women are unable to escape the definitions of male desires. And if you doubt it, well, just look at Jane.

Staged in a neatly sparse hotel room decked out in various shades of beige (is there some rule about beige in the hotel community? Some requirement?) which is set back behind a wide blood-red proscenium, bisecting the stage between the hotel room space and a wider more general area which acts as both hotel and exterior. As the play continues the hotel room transforms into various locations including an elegant dining room, a jello wrestling arena and an Iraqi hospital. You know, as one does.

Slickly directed by artistic director Joe Canuso, Theatre Exile has attempted to shape the whirling willful chaos of Callaghan’s script into something approaching a solid through line of narrative and theme. Part of what creates so much confusion in this piece is it’s sense of schizophrenia, at once telling a story and telling the telling of a story. The play begins with Agnes (Charlotte Ford) and Valerie (Christie Parker) a vicious sexy slightly deranged pair of  strippers who entrap and kill pro-life demonstrators across the nation and record their killings via blog. While Val is the mastermind, determined to eliminate male control of their bodies and selves, Agnes is sort of just along for the ride, playing the willful lusty drunken child to Val’s focused and furious adult. Ford’s Agnes is hilarious and physically fascinating, she’s like Gumby if Gumby had been a nypho-stripper with ADD, anorexia and a drinking problem. Parker’s Valerie is similarly well done, sharp, self aware, with equal moments of rage and comedy. Rounding out the women is Amy Smith, Headlong Dance Theater co-founder, choreographer of this piece, and Jane Fonda impersonator, whose imitation of the famous exercise queen is good, but her subtly disgusted hotel waitress is even better.  And while we know Fonda is a figment of everyone’s imagination, the question is,  are Valerie and Agnes real, or are they only images created by aspiring screenwriter Owen (Allen Radway) and his broseph solider-boy friend, Rodney (Jered McLenigan)? Shifting between  fantasy and reality and commentary, the crux of the issue seems to be representation, both female and male, and how projections of gender and behavior twist and subvert the individual, causing explosions of violence and sex. Using multiple repetitions of dialog with different characters repeating previous scenes to create contrasts in context and meaning, Callaghan’s writting points out the differences in our reactions between violence committed by men to women and violence committed by women to men. Further highlighting the contrast are Jorge Cousineau’s video projections, one of which depicts Owen brutally slashing and beating Agnes’ body, spraying the bed with gore. The fact that we see Valerie physically execute Rodney but are distanced from Owen’s slaughter of Agnes via projection divides the two killings, forcing us to think about our own conceptions and assumptions of violence between genders.  Cousineau’s work is also especially evocative in a series of projections towards the end of the piece that mesh video game images with war-time footage, fusing the two deftly and disturbingly.

While both Radway and McLenigan assume their roles with talent and energy, the characters themselves are simply not as strong as the roles of Agnes and Valerie, which is a shame, because they get a lot more playing time. And while the play starts out at a breakneck rhythm bouncing with profanity and action, it loses that energy, sagging markedly in a scene between Owen and Rodney, and even a Telenovela-style moment in an Iraqi hospital (presumably a scene from Owen’s screenplay, though it wouldn’t be wise to presume with this play, it has teeth) doesn’t bring back all the fun. Perhaps the dip in momentum comes from the scene that sits in the middle of the play, a dinner party with Agnes, Valerie, Owen and Rodney. It’s mysterious, well directed and supremely surreal, and it’s certainly the most interesting examination of male-female dynamic in the piece, but it feels like it belongs in a completely different play.  And the final scene, a question and answer session about Owen’s popular and award winning completely degrading towards women film, leaves us rather empty; it almost feels like a cop-out on the part of the playwright, choosing to say nothing rather then make a real statement about what has gone on for the last hour and a half of theater. In the end we are left with a cast of twisted damaged individuals who may or may not just be projections of each other’s own personalities, simulacrums of simulacrums. And while a repeated leitmotif of this play may be the line “I think you love me too much”, the truth is, while these people may love each other, that’s nothing compared to how much they hate themselves. But surely, in the age of reality television, that’s the only healthy option left to us, right?

Theatre Exile’s That Pretty Pretty; or the Rape Play runs until December 5th. Pick up tickets here. Seriously, do it. They’ve got guns.

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