Monday, April 27, 2015

Theatre on the Square's 'Rapture, Blister, Burn': 'Who's gonna shoe your pretty little feet?' updated

"I don't need no man," is the woman's firm answer in the folk song quoted above, which is played over the sound system before the show and between the acts of "Rapture, Blister, Burn," a deep-delving comedy about contemporary relationships between the sexes, now at Theatre on the Square through Saturday.

As a social movement, American feminism has not been able to come up with so categorical a  dismissal of the male sex, tempting though that must be at times. It's probably more vital for women to advance their interests and accommodate their longings to the male power structure in their actual lives. Besides, the Woody Guthrie song is about a particular rejection; it's not a policy agenda, though it may do as a pleasant fantasy.

Gina Gianfriddo's play probes the vulnerability of Catherine Croll (Carrie Ann Schlatter), a romantically unattached feminist scholar who takes time out from her celebrity as a public intellectual to come home to her mother, Alice (Bridget Schlebecker), who is comfortably on the mend from a recent heart attack but still the center of her daughter's loving concern.

Also in unsettling proximity in the New England college town are Don and Gwen Harper (Clay Mabbitt and Kimberly Ruse-Roberts), a couple whose academic and personal lives were joined with Catherine's before she shot to fame as author of a couple of buzzworthy books armed with provocative subtitles. The three have a history, of course: Years ago, Gwen took advantage of Catherine's professional ambition to steal Don away from her and domesticate him after a fashion. Glad to shed academic rigor, Gwen as homemaker is a nattering control freak of the kind often found among recovering alcoholics. The marriage is in deep trouble, so now Gwen and Catherine seem to have a secret pact to violate the Tenth Commandment.
Avery shares her millennial perspective with Catherine and Alice.

To go much further into this juicy tangle would be to enter spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that the play's other character, Avery Willard (Megan Medley), initially tangential as the Harpers' regular baby sitter, becomes a crucial, salty-tongued dispenser of wisdom and tough love, balancing Alice's gentler but equally clear-eyed approach.

And the way Gianfriddo suggests Catherine's rescue is fascinating, giving satisfying momentum to a play initially overloaded with searing, witty, sociological talk. After Don, a laidback college dean of mildly disreputable habits, arranges for Catherine to teach a summer course that ends up with just two students enrolled — Avery and Gwen — we sense that feminist theory will run aground on the rocks of unfinished emotional business.

Rob Johansen directs an alert, edgy cast capable of rendering this high-stakes, five-way conversation about commitment, life goals, ambition, and female identity in an entertaining way. Sunday's performance of "Rapture, Blister, Burn" made clear to me how sadly essential it is for women to think of their lives in terms of market value when their sense of themselves doesn't gain traction until it goes in another direction entirely. Men, to their detriment, often feel they need only solid market value to be certain of their personal worth. When Don breaks through this trap in the second act, it's a revelation.

The old model of small-town college life consisted of a male hierarchy ornamented by "faculty wives" whose scant power to manipulate forced them to become either shrews or shrinking violets. Now the zeitgeist is whispering: O Woman of Academe, close thy Edward Albee ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?") and open thy Sheryl Sandberg ("Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead")! Neither text — one bitter, the other cheery — does more than hint at a path to the general fulfillment promised by feminism, wracked as it is by class and race divisions, on top of the old pornography and sexual-expression wars. (The essential-reading list in this play offers the dizzying polarities of Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly.)
Opening scene of "Rapture, Blister, Burn": The Harpers deal with Catherine's return.

TOTS' wide stage, divided into three playing areas for "Rapture, Blister, Burn," makes where you sit in the theater especially interesting. With a seat toward the front of the center section but at the Mass Ave end, I took in the first scene, playing well to my left, at an oblique angle, trying to pick up what the awkward conversation among Don and Gwen and Catherine was all about.  This had me feeling like an eavesdropper, which must have shaped my response to the play's slowly revealed secrets.

In contrast, when Don and Catherine reignited their mutual passion on the patio of Alice's house right in front of me near the end of Act 1, I sensed firsthand the heat sparking the play's title. Patrons seated far to my left must have felt like voyeurs. This Hitchcockian "Rear Window" aspect of the production is a special quality of the play's being staged at TOTS, and one of those delightful extras of attending theater.

(Photos by Zach Rosing)

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