Tuesday, February 24, 2009

That Pretty Pretty; or The Rape Play


By Sheila Callaghan. Directed by Kip Fagan. The Rattlestick Theatre. (CLOSED)

Early reviews of Sheila Callaghan's aggressive new meta-satire of pop-culture misogyny are pretty evenly divided, even within themselves. Critics seem to agree that the play's nonlinear riffing is zany and a little scattershot, but they differ on whether that's an asset or a liability. But even those turned off by the show's violence tend to praise the fearless cast.

Nytheatre.com A
(Loren Noveck) Tricky, exciting, and darkly funny...What makes the play so interesting is that almost every element is simultaneously operating on multiple levels...The play constantly shifts our perceptions of what's "real" inside its own play-world, what we take for granted and then are forced to reconsider. The more Callaghan seems to be stripping down, stylistically, to a conventional form of theatrical realism, the more the play traffics in—and mocks—utterly familiar conventions...Callaghan's work tends to be linguistically dense, thick with lyric, metaphor- and image-packed prose, and it's fun to see her show an incisive and often wickedly funny ear for naturalistic dialogue, especially in the scenes between the guys. The many tonal shifts make this a tricky piece to stage, and director Kip Fagan and the wonderful ensemble show extraordinary precision in keeping the lines demarcated both between the various scenes/layers and within the scenes as the characters shift among the various planes of self-awareness and naturalism/caricature/posturing. All the design elements work, too.

CurtainUp A
(Jenny Sandman) While I'm uncertain about what actually happens and what it means, I can say this with certainty: I loved it. This is one of the most fun, most seemingly random, and most high-energy shows I've ever seen. I laughed out loud more than I do at stand-up comedy routines, and I could not have predicted anything that happened to save my life (which is a good thing). That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play could be seen as a feminist polemic against men, male power, and the "boys will be boys" mentality, but any attempt at a unifying theme is really an afterthought...Don't expect it to make sense. Just sit back and enjoy the ribald, shameless, and exuberant ride. The pieces do start to tie together in the very last scene, but only in a basic way. The cast is fantastic....Director Kip Fagan has expertly shaped what could be an imagistic mess into a play with momentum and power.

Offoffonline A-
(Li Cornfield) A loopy meditation on rape culture, That Pretty Pretty is sometimes shrewd and sometimes silly. The play makes its points elliptically rather than directly and has a lot of fun with its own conceit: a screenwriter works through his own gendered emotional baggage while harboring under the delusion that he is creating a feminist screenplay. It’s a sneaky device that allows the play’s loosely connected scenes to cover a wide array of styles, excuses textual inconsistencies, and permits plot lines to wholly change course at whim. The mutability of the play’s world will frustrate audience members eager to know the rules from the get-go; better to sit back and enjoy its horrific humor while allowing the play to explain itself...The versatile cast shifts with boundless energy between genres that range from high comedy to kooky melodrama to torture porn and back again.

New Yorker B+
(John Lahr) Gives you plenty of rape and nothing pretty. I’m not sure what the play is about, but, then, it seems, neither is the author, Sheila Callaghan, a talented writer new to me. The evening is a submersion in the anarchy of ambivalence: variously a rant, a riff, a rumble—about our notions of naturalism, objectification, perversity, and beauty...There’s sass and sarcasm in Callaghan’s high-energy punk writing, which feels like early Sam Shepard in the way that it dumps the author’s zany inner world in the audience’s lap. Whether it will ever turn into anything but the sound of its own mocking voice, only time will tell.

Talkin' Broadway B+
(Matthew Murray) One of the funniest theatrical takes on categorically unfunny subjects since Martin McDonagh made a fall-down riot of domestic terrorism in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Alas, Callaghan does not possess McDonagh’s peerless plotting ability, his nimble way of approaching an unexpected joke from five directions simultaneously, or his on-the-sleeve social conscience. That makes her play, which has been decisively but wobbily directed by Kip Fagan, more mirth-inspiring than insightful. But even if Callaghan works too hard to drive home her points - and if they’re usually blunted when she does - you can’t help but be grateful for the zany trip to the underworld she makes possible...The excess does begin to wear after a while.

Time Out NY B+
(David Cote) Sheila Callaghan seems to have put third-wave feminism, Gen-Y gender confusion and macho writerly clich├ęs in a blender set to high speed. Her manic, angry, deftly constructed That Pretty Pretty; or, the Rape Play whipsaws between laughs and squirms as Callaghan trawls the mucky depths of male-constructed femininity. Fans of Pirandello and Dennis Potter will recognize Callaghan’s main stylistic strategy: driving a wedge between her characters and their onstage, equally fictitious author...It’s not as dark or substantive as it could be, but the author is imaginative enough to avoid preachiness. Director Kip Fagan’s extremely talented cast (Joyce, a consistently engaging performer, gets to show off her comic chops) navigates the nihilism and hurt of the script. Perhaps by saying several things at once about sexism and desire, Callaghan speaks something new.

Village Voice B+
(Alexis Soloski) Funny, scary, messy, and forthrightly feminist...A program note warns that the play "contains violent episodes and sexual content," an unusually mild description of the panoply of beatings, murders, and rapes that ensue. Callaghan satirizes the recent portrayal of women by male writers through a series of metafictional scenes—deliberately outdoing the boys in raunchy, profane, and icky sex. It's remarkable that director Kip Fagan manages to make clear delineations among the various modes the play demands—the extremely fictional, the sort-of fictional, the filmic, the more-or-less real, etc. Of course, the script necessitates that the actresses succumb to indignities as bad or worse than those supplied by male writers—like a scene of Jell-O wrestling. Callaghan declines to offer a woman-friendly alternative; it's a troubling play and must have been difficult to write.

New York Times B
(Jason Zinoman) A raunchy, savvy and only partly successful black comedy...If the first half of this wandering play brings to mind a feminist version of George C. Wolfe’s “Colored Museum,” Ms. Callaghan eventually shifts gears to reveal a screenwriter, Owen (a very sly Greg Keller), and his war veteran friend Rodney (Joseph Gomez), who may or may not be the “authors” of the earlier scenes. There is an attempt here at a more realistic style, but Ms. Callaghan and the director, Kip Fagan, maintain the broad strokes of a cartoonist.

NY Press B
(Leonard Jacobs) Think of Callaghan's play as a subversive revue featuring literal and figurative vignettes inspired by the topic of rape...With mind-blowing images and soul-crushing language flowing wildly, director Kip Fagan avoids the quicksand trap of pacing things too slowly, though a dinner scene midway through is such a non sequitur I defy him to explain it. Mostly he's whipped the actors into screaming, energetic whirlwinds, which at least gives you something to watch when the play feels most unmoored. And if you're totally mystified, wait for Owen's speech about his mother near the end; note Keller's ingenious delivery. It would be insulting to classify this speech as Callaghan's intended meaning for the play, for it lacks one. But it does crystallize her take on how boundaries of decency can be irrevocably distorted.

Variety C-
(Marilyn Stasio) In the abstract, Sheila Callaghan's offbeat satirical comedy...sounds like outrageous, intelligent fun. A cartoonish comeback to male violence against women, this feminist rant features two strippers who take murderous revenge on right-wing anti-abortionists, and then post their exploits on the Internet. Among other topics dear to its black heart, show rails against slacker guys who think of women as sex objects and literary guys who write stuff that feeds that perception. But due to self-indulgent writing (that shouldn't reflect on the game cast), much of the fun is lost in sloppy execution.

Talk Entertainment D+
(Oscar E Moore) How far is one willing to go to show some of the horrors of human vices in the hope of bringing about some improvement? Angry Sheila Callaghan has gone about as far as she can go with her new theatrical outing...The acting by the cast of five in this burlesque of inhuman behavior is very good. Excellent in fact. The content, however, left me cold as a witch’s tit – the metaphor is apt, all things considered. How can anyone warm up to characters so vile?...Kip Fagan does his best to clarify as director but it’s a hard row to hoe.

Theatermania D
(Patrick Lee)Sheila Callaghan takes aim at some of the misogyny in pop culture by skewering a male screenwriter with an adolescent view of women. Unfortunately, the skewering amounts to glib mockery and the play, lacking fresh substantive social critique, quickly becomes tedious...If the play seems driven by righteous anger, it hasn't been focused for maximum effectiveness. Callaghan's fight-fire-with-fire strategy is severely limiting to begin with, since there are only so many appropriate audience reactions to vulgarities. And it is further complicated by a needlessly messy mash-up structure that isn't especially clarified by Kip Fagan's direction. The play's most powerful scene, a mostly pantomimed absurdist parody at a dining table where the men dominate the women, doesn't seem to belong to the world of the play.

New York Post F
(Frank Scheck) The sort of deliberately provocative but juvenile effort the Rattlestick seems compelled to champion. This absurdist satire about misogyny and sexual violence would have felt tired decades ago..."Some people just don't have the stomach for social commentary," the filmmaker says. "Well, f - - - 'em. Not my audience." If this is the playwright's idea of social commentary, count me out.

Nytheatre.com A 13; CurtainUp A 13; Offoffonline A- 12; New Yorker B+ 11; TONY B+ 11; VV B+ 11; Talkin' Broadway B+ 11; NY Times B 10; NY Press B 10; Variety C- 6; Talk Entertainment D+ 5; Theatermania D 4; NY Post F 1; TOTAL: 118/13=9.08 (B-)

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