April 7, 2009

Making Waves in Feminism at Risley

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All male playwrights are necessarily chauvinists. On the one hand, if they write plays without leading female characters, they are obviously enthralled with perpetuating the imbalance of roles in favor of men in a profession where the number of actresses outnumber their male counterparts. On the other hand, if they do write leading female characters, those characters are inevitably neurotic, damaged, benighted, angry, difficult and depressed.
Such is the specious monological sophistry that leads to parodic, pseudo-feminist claims such as “all sex is rape,” which are often designed to damage the credibility and pluralism of feminism. Of course, female characters, in plays written by both men and women, tend to be all those things because people are all those things, at least when their lives exhibit situations with dramatic possibilities.
Sheila Callaghan’s That Pretty, Pretty; or, The Rape Play, performed in Risley this past weekend, bills itself as a satire on misogynistic male playwrights. Actually, a satire which sets its sights on such a sitting duck wouldn’t be very interesting; rather, the play succeeds because it is a burlesque in the dual sense of the term: both a grotesque exaggeration that parodies more general ideas, as well as a kind of self-conscious strip-tease. The play attempts to strip away the layers of consciousness that shroud the idea of sex and gender itself.
Two lesbian strippers, Agnes and Valerie, go on a killing spree, seducing men back to their hotel rooms in order to shoot them before anyone can climax, then post their exploits on a blog. Agnes, sympathetically depicted with a mixture of self-delusion and self-abandon by Ariana Marmora ’11, stumbles around as a skanky boozehound with high-class pipedreams. Meanwhile, the more butch Valerie, acted with an unfocused rage by the very disciplined Helen T. Clark, rants against men and screams for Agnes to hit her.
The same scene, however, is restaged with the women and the man switching their positions. These initial scenes may or may not be retrospectively framed as the testosterone-fueled daydreams of Owen, who is attempting to “bang out” his great American screenplay in a hotel room. Owen (X Li ’11) is continually distracted by his brother, Rodney, aptly nicknamed “The Rod” since he acts as a lightning rod for the virulent undercurrent of patriarchal hate-speech that laces our language at its most demotic (i.e., “faggot,” “bitches,” “cock-sucker,” “ho-bag,” etc. ad nauseam). Despite the fact that the entire play may be Owen’s sick psychomachia, X endows the character with a genuinely level-headed and self-questioning demeanor so that the role is not just a cardboard cut-out designed for feminist target-practice.
Isaac Taitz ’11 plays “The Rod” as a disgusting yet likeable bad boy, an uninhibited id who pisses on his own bed then blames it on Owen as he’s “hitting” on the female room service attendant. In fact, we see a gender-reversed replay of Rod and Owen’s shenanigans with the female room service attendant later. There is a suggestion that Owen is projecting his homosexual desires for Rod (and vice-versa) through these violent fantasies about women. By the end, we wonder if the whole play may, in fact, be the movie that Owen has already written, as Owen glibly answers questions at a screenwriter’s talk-back in the concluding scene.
Obviously straightforward narrative is less important than gender-bending dramaturgy in the play: It insistently breaks down into self-conscious theatricality, juxtaposing performative modes such as cross-dressing and karaoke or adopting a knock-off self-styled Harold Pinter gambit after which a character quips, “Ooh, you’re getting all subtext-y.” During one of these inserts, Taitz holds the spotlight for a rambling speech about “poop-flingers” in an unnamed war, convincing us of his hypermasculine “tall” tale even as it dribbles out into incoherence.
Throughout the play, Jane Fonda continually intervenes in order to exercise — or, perhaps exorcise — all the sex-fiends. Brisa de Frietas ’11, playing Fonda at her most aerobic, almost steals the show with her doggedly perky, can-do slapstick, a welcome yet ironic antidote to the morbidity surrounding her, given that such perkiness and prettiness is exactly what is under erasure.
Director JessiMichelle Pollack ’07 highlights the “staged” nature of these women’s relationships when Owen bitch-slaps and punches Fonda from the opposite side of the stage, so that the space between action and reaction, cause and effect, must be bridged by the audience’s own fantasies. Pollack achieves maximal effect from minimal resources, creating a bigger-than-life theatrical world by consistently forcing the viewer to fill in the gaps with their own overactive and often dark imaginations.
The upshot of this medley of discourses seems to be that, while gender may be a performance, it’s a performance that must use real bodies that have already been encoded. The biologic given of sex causes the scenes to take on different significance when the genders of the characters playing them are reversed.
At the center of the play is a dinner party where dessert features a girl-on-girl Jello-wrestling match. How much can camp or parody redeem the fact that we’re enjoying a messy catfight with two girls in their skivvies? Other provocative scenes — Rod burning cigarettes on Agnes’s back while doing her doggy-style, Agnes dry-humping the leg of Rod’s corpse, Rod putting a grenade in an Iraqi woman’s vagina — also seem designed to provide titillation or humor as they simultaneously evoke extreme discomfort.
Is the play’s critique of patriarchy compromised by these ribald spectacles, or does it manage to contain them? If the play pokes fun at Owen for calling himself a feminist, does it fully stand apart from its own representation of sexist depictions to comment on them from a truly “feminist” viewpoint? Thankfully, for most of the play, it does not; the constant pulling out from the expected climactic clench, as each scene strips off layer after semiotic layer without bottom, allows the play to escape didacticism in favor of dialectic.
The play implicates its viewers in asking whether women who want to be hurt by their partner in heterosexual or even (perhaps, especially?) lesbian relationships have internalized our culture’s misogyny. Is a woman’s desire to be hurt or humiliate simply another sexual kink for which we believe politics stops at the bedroom door, or is it equivalent to other political interventions upon her body by larger societal forces; is it possible for sexual violence to be consensual in a patriarchal culture? Can such violence ever be empowering for women?
The play creates a lingering unease, making us ask such questions rather than answering them for us. The ending, however, in which Owen pretentiously responds to his critics, edges too close to diatribe by leaving the real questions the play brings up unvoiced. Callaghan cannot exonerate herself simply through easy jokes mocking and scapegoating the one-dimensionality of her own dimwitted male playwright character. But, alternatively, one could view the last scene as the play’s ultimate gender-reversal, a final self-interrogating gesture, since Owen is, of course, the projection and perhaps even alter ego of the female playwright, Callaghan. In this way, the play bifurcates and triplicates into divergent interpretations, just as feminism itself has continued to challenge its own assumptions even while this inner dynamism has allowed it to better respond to larger cultural issues, as well.