The wide-eyed, baby-faced babe with a bod known as Betty Boop is an icon—a 1930s cartoon character based on singer and dancer Helen Kane (and influenced by other ladies of the day) who became a sex symbol in the same era that a couple of mice took to the screen. A tweak here, some changes there to comply with censorship laws, but Betty has endured, even when her sexuality was obscured by domesticity. She’s appeared as recently as 2012 in a makeup commercial though her heyday of standalone animated shorts has long gone.
She’s also the jumping off point for Woolly Mammoth’s season opener—Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops by Jen Silverman. Collective Rage wants to turn stereotypical women from all races and classes and genders and sexual identifies on their head. In other words, to redefine what it means to be a Boop. The five fabulous ladies of this show are all Bettys (in name and fierceness), numbered for distinction. Since this is going to get confusing, and redundant, I’ll distinguish each by their race or a defining characteristic, like White Betty, Nerdy Betty, Latin Betty, etc…after introductions.
Betty Boop 1 (or White Betty; Beth Hylton) is a rich white lady who, while watching the news night after night, bemoans how terrible a place the world is. Babies are dying. Children are starving. Alzheimer’s ravages the aged. It all amplifies her sad reality, which includes a listless marriage to a rich cheater named Richard and the unrelenting pressure to be polite and restrained.
Betty Boop 2 (or Nerdy Betty; Dorea Schmidt) is a nerdy, lonely housewife whose marriage has been sexless for five or six years. She’s very Mary Katherine Gallagher (Molly Shannon’s great Saturday Night Live persona) in appearance and, even, in weirdness, using hand puppets for conversation. They are her only friends.
Betty Boop 3 (or Latin Betty; Natascia Diaz) is a Latina diva—a makeup artist at Sephora until the theatre bug grabs her and she decides to devise a play. She’s also friends with Betty Boop 4 (or Asian Betty; Kate Rigg). Asian Betty loves Latin Betty, a fact she laments often while fixing her truck alongside another childhood friend, Betty Boop 5 (or Black Betty; Felicia Curry). Black Betty has just left prison and is often mistaken for male though her gender is less defined. I can’t remember the complicated way in which she describes herself, but she is okay with female pronouns. She also comes across confident and sure.
White Betty hosts a dinner party where Nerdy Betty meets Latin Betty. Latin Betty hosts her own party, where she and Asian Betty introduce Nerdy Betty to her vagina. White Betty decides to take her rage out on a punching bag at the gym, where Black Betty becomes her personal trainer. Soon all five have crossed paths, and Latin Betty casts each in her play, for which she will serve as director, writer, casting director, and lead writer. As you can imagine, the play is a hot mess, but rehearsals force the Bettys to confront their relationships with each other and the men in their lives. The rehearsals also provide a safe space for them to unleash, or explore, their individual rage.
A show as visually minimal as Collective Rage (no real set pieces to speak of and a shortened stage that puts the actresses at its edge most of the show while backed by a mid-century modern wall of rectangles) rests on interesting characters with interesting things to say. And, they are amusing in their banter and conversations, often profound in surprising ways and when not even trying to be.
“If you’ve got a great rack, you’ve got a great rack,” Latin Betty says, “It’s like scientific.” Ok, maybe that isn’t so profound, but you gotta admit, it’s a solid observation that likely does have some scientific backing. Also, it’s funny.
Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops
closes October 9, 2016
Details and tickets
The Boops are wonderful—silly, even in their seriousness—but a bit too wacky at times to be seen as genuinely transformative entities that speak to the autonomy Collective Rage endorses, especially when the play’s endgame has them coupling-off. Going from one relationship (or no relationship) to another, even if it allows you a greater sense of self, doesn’t necessarily scream independence, even if you are sleeping with a new gender. Breaking from an ideal (no matter your race or class or sexual or gender identity) is freeing, but relationships, inherently, limit when, where, and how much a person can express their true selves, in my opinion.
Additionally, Asian Betty doesn’t seem to redefine herself, though she claims to have changed in the end. Really, she gets what she’s pining for most of the show, and, in doing so, forces Latin Betty back into the box she spends the show trying to escape. This isn’t to say that their friendship isn’t altered. They are surer of each other’s importance and find an honesty they once couldn’t express. It is sweet and reassuring, almost comforting, seeing them no longer in conflict. But I found it hard to see transformation around which Collective Rage revolves. Likewise, Nerdy Betty seems less transformed and more unhinged by her journey of self-discovery. Still, her rages—the most outlandish and expressive—provide the greatest laughs in a show brimming with humor. Standing a tad outside the chaos that surrounds the other Bettys, she reminds us of the absurdity surrounding the mystery known as the vagina.
But Beth Hylton and Felicia Curry as White Betty and Black Betty are the beating heart of the show, and even as I lambast the relationship/autonomy conundrum in Collective Rage, their mutual influence is genuinely transformative and the relationship they land on is honest and tender. As they progress from trainer and client to friends and, finally, lovers, Black Betty goes from a terse, tough-as-nails individual to one ready to embrace a self-acceptance she’s only ever feigned before.
“I appreciate you aren’t what I thought you were,” she tells White Betty, though she could be talking about herself.
Collective Rage sounds like it would be a show you’d want to skip if looking for an enjoyable Friday night event, but don’t let it fool you. The show is less angst-y than its title suggests. Its actually entertaining and thought-provoking, and filled with great performances.
Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops by Jen Silverman. Directed by Mike Donahue. Featuring Beth Hylton, Dorea Schmidt, Natascia Diaz, Kate Rigg, and Felicia Curry . Creative Team: Dane Laffrey, Set Designer; Kelsey Hunt, Costume Designer; Colin K. Bills, Lighting Designer; Thomas Sowers, Sound Designer; Daniel Kluger, Composer; Kirsten Bowen, Production Dramaturg; Kristy Matero, Production Stage Manager. Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.