The F-word. Not exactly a rarity in contemporary theater.
But another F-word is—feminism. Feminist theory and the compromises women make combine into a snappy and rueful comedy by Gina Gionfriddo, Rapture, Blister, Burn, which sparkles and saddens at Round House Theatre.
Shirley Serotsky directs this high-minded and frequently low-moraled look at four women of different generations and the choices they make—and try to remake–over the course of one crazy New England summer.
The age-old question “Can women have it all?” and more to the point, “Are women punished for their choices?,” are debated in mostly lively fashion in a series of short, telling vignettes.
The action opens on a backyard cookout with Gwen Harper (Beth Hylton) and husband Don (Tim Getman) swapping memories with grad school friend Catherine Croll (Michelle Six), who has returned to the college town to look after her mother Alice (Helen Hedman), who has had a heart attack, and to teach.
Catherine has become a hot-shot, stiletto feminist-academic, the darling of talk shows, blogs and book tours. While Catherine travels the world expounding on what pornography, reality TV and torture-horror movies really say about women, Gwen stayed in town raising two sons and many a glass—she is currently sober. Not the case for Don, a boozy pothead and porn addict with all the ambition of a rutabaga.
He’s given up his passion—teaching—for a cushy assistant dean’s job, which allows for ample slacking. A real catch, that Don. Yet, he is the object of catfights between Catherine and Gwen. Back in the day Don was Catherine’s significant other, but when she went off to London for a year Don wound up marrying Gwen.
She hones in on the couple’s stale, unhappy marriage, and after a demure poke from her 1950s-throwback mother, Catherine decides to reclaim Don for herself. For her, it is more than a revenge affair. Her doting mother’s shaky health has made Catherine question her choices and her ambition. She faces being all alone in the world and her reaction to this is to try to evoke missed opportunities.
Don is more than happy to jump on the nostalgia train—beats facing reality any day. While Catherine and Don while away the summer like two beer-swilling, Dorito-chomping teenage boys, Gwen indulges in a bit of “what if?” of her own.
After an engaging first act (which could have used some astute trimming) that takes us on an entertaining, sound-bite swift tour of modern feminism—everyone from Betty Friedan and Nancy Friday to Andrea Dworkin and the third-wave Riot Grrrls are brought up—you get the impression that Catherine and Gwen, and even the 20-ish student Avery Willard (Maggie Erwin), are somewhat confused, but right-on freethinking women.
During intermission, every character with a uterus must have had a lobotomy, because the second act is filled with such regressive thinking that you begin to wonder just what mother Alice is putting in those martinis.
One supposes it is all meant to be satirical and wacky and Gionfriddo is taking to an absurdist degree the notion that girls lose their minds, morals, and most important, sisterhood, when they get around boys.
The action becomes surreal to the point where you ponder who kidnapped the authoritative, smart Catherine of the first act? And why does Gwen lose her maternal instinct at the drop of a hat to leave her 3-year-old with virtual strangers? Makes no sense. What turns Avery, who up to this point has been the play’s hilariously ironic Millennial voice of reason, into some retro mean-girl who gets all “Heathers” all of a sudden.
Don, the schlump, and perennially perky housewife Alice are the only two characters who seem truthful throughout. The other female characters appear to be a vehicle for Gionfriddo’s personal-political statement that to be a woman means fundamentally that you’re F-ed.
Closes February 22, 2015
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $50
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 240-644-1100
Maggie Erwin spits out her acidic lines with perfect timing and adolescent inflection, deftly running away with nearly every scene she’s in. And Tim Getman projects mediocrity with hang-dog authority.
If only there were more rapture in this play, rather than the blistering burn and blister of a punchline play where the joke is on women.
Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo . Directed by Shirley Serotsky . Featuring Maggie Erwin, Tim Getman, Helen Hedman, Beth Hylton, and Michelle Six . Scenic Designer: Daniel Conway . Costume Designer: Deb Sivigny . Lighting Designer: Andrew R. Cissna . Sound Designer: Matthew M. Nielson . Stage Manager:Bekah Wachenfeld . Produced by Round House Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.