Saturday, June 30, 2012

Rapture, Blister, Burn: Emphasis on the Burn

A play driven by feminist theory should be something of interest to me but Rapture, Blister, Burn was more concerned with the themes, theories and rhetoric than character or plot development. And even those themes and theories lost steam by the end of this disappointing play.

Fantastic artwork for the show.
Written by Gina Gionfriddo (finalist for 2009 Pulizer Prize for Becky Shaw) and directed by Peter DuBois, Rapture, Blister, Burn explores questions of female friendship, relationships and feminism.  Leading an uneven ensemble is Amy Brenneman as Catherine, a nationally-recognized scholar, writer and career woman, who envies her grad school friend Gwen's (Kellie Overbey) stay-at-home life with her kids and her husband Don (Lee Tergesen) who was also Catherine's boyfriend in grad school.   Catherine comes home to take care of her mother Alice (Beth Dixon) who recently had a heart attack and ends up teaching a class at Don's university.  The two students who sign up for Catherine's class are Gwen and Avery (Virginia Kull).  The classes take place in Alice's livingroom with martinis at 5pm.  Catherine, of course, makes a play for Don and tensions between the old friends rise.

The play ends up centered around Catherine's attempts to lure Don away from Gwen and the lectures Catherine gives to her two students.  The lectures and feminist theory seem like a veiled attempt to get out the semi-obvious subtext in the relationships of the characters.  But the play is actually not as smart as it pretends to be.  By using the lectures as a crutch for the sub-text, the play fails to give true space to the characters to live out their lives and the characters end up one dimensional as a result.  We hear them talk about the theory as applied to their lives or like a fad diet their ridiculous attempts to live the theory to get what they want out of their lives. Shocking no one, the results aren't quite as neat and tidy as academic theory would have you believe. 

For all the academic double-speak, this slight story never really gels into a play.  Lots of thematic "stuff" is thrown into the mix but without clarity or strength it just ends up as academic window-dressing over a somewhat pedestrian story of unhappy women not getting what they want out of life.  Yay.  I'd have been fine with that story if there had been any emotional investment whatsoever but emotions took a back seat here.  Amy Brenneman came across as a little too dead in the eyes for me.  Her character is needy, whiny, and infantile, so my sympathy for her and her situation was quite limited.

Having recently seen the film Young Adult I see some parallels between the works--having a main character who is not terribly sympathetic whose goal on some level is to break up a marriage to "rescue" the miserable man and bring pleasure to herself. Trying to recapture a lost love that now seems like the relationship she needs.  But at least Young Adult offered an array of sympathetic side characters and plot-wise went for the jugular with that character and her fantasy implosion.  Here, I found all the characters slightly despicable and the plot grounded in a muted emotional reality.  The female friendships on display include the mother and daughter who are co-dependent and possibly alcoholics, the toxic grad student friends who are competitive with one another and continue to compete over the same man 20 years later, and eventually a sweet inter-generational friendship between Avery and Catherine which might be a temporary salve for both their wounds.

Virginia Kull was the saving grace of this production for me.  I was pretty soft on her in Assistance but here she articulates the voice of her generation clearer and with more heart and sincerity than the other characters.   She also seemed like the one character who was even in touch with reality.  Beth Dixon was doing the best Frances Sternhagen by someone who is not Frances Sternhagen.  So nice work there.  Kellie Overbey was appropriately irritating but her character never really gets to get out of the stereotype ghetto she was written into.

In the end, it seemed that Gionfriddo was trying to tell us we don't all fit neatly into the gender roles that the modern world offers us--mother, wife, career-woman (even if we continue to irrationally and possibly subconsciously crave them).  I guess one can also take away from this play that feminists can be terrible people too.  So that's something. We've come a long way baby.


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