It's a damn shame we can't bring Charlotte Perkins Gilman back to life right now. The social activist and pioneering feminist writer would undoubtedly have some insightful things to say about the current election. I bet she would also love being in the audience for Jen Silverman's new play, Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops, watching its five angry women slash their way through the yellow wallpaper of societal expectations and gender norms surrounding their lives and doing it with tools typically associated with masculinity, including wrenches, boxing gloves, self-determination, and the word pussy.
Pussy is chased, discussed, and scrutinized in hilariously up-close and personal ways in Collective Rage, now having its world premiere at D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. On a set designed by Dane Laffrey that pays a sly contemporary homage to Gilman's classic autobiographical short story The Yellow Wallpaper, Silverman's characters vent, flirt, party, and talk with each other about what they want, what they don't want, who they are, and who they're not. They all happen to be named Betty Boop, and they're identified numerically on projected title cards giving the audience a heads-up on what's coming next during the play's 19 scenes, e.g. Betty 1 is about to do X with Betty 3 causing Betty 4 to become Y, and it all means Z, and Z stands for pussy.
Silverman's script breaks the Bettys down in the following way, which is really all you need to know beforehand:
- BETTY BOOP 1 - Femme, white, rich, uptight, fueled by secret rage (played by Beth Hylton)
- BETTY BOOP 2 - Femme, white, rich, uptight but coming undone, secretly obsessed with porn (Dorea Schmidt)
- BETTY BOOP 3 - Femme, Latina, charismatic and pretty, kind of a know-it-all (Natascia Diaz)
- BETTY BOOP 4 - Butch lesbian, any ethnicity, great tattoos, gently melancholic, is too often ignored (Kate Rigg)
- BETTY BOOP 5 - Butch lesbian, any ethnicity, great tattoos, just out of prison, owns a hole-in-the-wall boxing gym (Felicia Curry)
In both the theater's lobby and program, much is made about the history and social significance of the Betty Boop character -- the transformation of her appearance, the source(s) of her appearance, censorship of the appearance, the sexual and sexist content of the cartoons featuring her, and more. That might be the easy way into a play that bills itself as "In Essence a Queer and Occasionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were in Middle School and You Read About Shackleton and How He Explored the Antarctic? Imagine the Antarctic as a Pussy and It’s Sort of Like That)," but I'm not sure it's the most fruitful.
A better way might be Shackelton's Antarctic as a metaphor for Silverman's pussy power (and its empowerment): unknown and vast, a region to be explored, tantalizingly holding out the prospect of being conquered, ultimately proving its ability to reward or crush those daring the attempt. And, at least in this production, looking at literary allusion written all over the massive, unyielding, featureless, glaring yellow plastic wall, providing the actors a backdrop and a place to sit -- an update on that barren room in which Gilman's first-person narrator was forcibly placed, where doors open to the outside only on rare occasions. Inside those yellow walls Gilman turned inward. Silverman's characters are busting out.
All that sounds fairly serious for a play that's damn funny and loaded with sharply observed dialogue, vivid characters, and more insight into gender issues than can probably be absorbed in a single viewing. Collective Rage is a goldmine for actors, and the cast in Woolly Mammoth's production reaches a rare parity in the even distribution its rewards. Bettys 1, 2, and 3 may have greater arcs and the best laughs, but Bettys 4 and 5 get to go deeper; the result is a tightly-knit ensemble that runs like a sleek pink Cadillac. Actually, make that a big pink truck that occasionally takes out a deserving pedestrian as it barrels down the road.
The plot is little more than a loose frame for Silverman's ideas and space for her characters to fill, consisting of parties, conversations, and Betty 3's absurdly inept attempt at self-realization through corralling the others into her self-produced, self-directed, self-managed production of the internal play in A Midsummer Night's Dream. How she arrived at this goal is best left experienced rather than revealed, as are the rest of plot points. And it's funny.
Late in the play there's a break in the yellow wall, and when it arrives it's like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when the film suddenly turns to color. The scene confuses before becoming coherent, perhaps intentionally, or perhaps due to the suddenness of the break, but as it comes into focus the hurly-burly of what's come before gives way to an organized display of emotional truths, suddenly centering the play in an unexpectedly satisfying way, and bringing nearly everything Silverman's set on the periphery straight into the foreground. The fruit of director Mike Donahue's prior collaborations with Silverman are most obvious in these moments, which could easily have gone south in different, less empathic hands.
This penultimate scene feels like the natural ending point, and it would be easy to argue the end of Collective Rage would be more effective if it was. But it isn't -- the final scene is a kind of odd and quirky epilogue, as if Silverman had just one more thing she needed to say and couldn't quite fit it in any other way. Ultimately she gets it to pay off with the very last line, but it's a slightly discordant ending to an otherwise brilliant work. Despite that, Collective Rage is easily one the smartest, funniest new plays I've seen in recent years.
Collective Rage runs through October 9 at Woolly Mammoth, 641 D St. NW
Washington DC. Written by Jen Silverman, directed by Mike Donahue, starring Beth Hylton, Dorea Schmidt, Natascia Diaz, Kate Rigg, and Felicia Curry. Running time one hour, forty-five minutes without an intermission. Half-price tickets are available on Goldstar.
American Theatre has just posted a well-written piece about Silverman, whose work is coming soon to SF Playhouse, Berkeley Rep, South Coast Rep, and Baltimore's Everyman Theatre. Read it here.
Top photo of Natascia Diaz by Cade Martin.
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