“It’s about all the fucked-up shit chicks go through,” says Owen (Allen Radway), describing a screenplay he’s writing to his friend Rodney (Jered McLenigan). The same could be said about Sheila Callaghan’s purposely shocking black comedy That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play, currently being put on by Theatre Exile. But Callaghan seems to believe that it isn’t enough to just say it—to really understand where she’s coming from, the audience needs to literally see a woman violated with a hand grenade.
Callaghan has described Pretty Pretty as “the psychic runoff of surfing the Internet,” so it’s unsurprising that it doesn’t have a conventional story or plot. What is does have is enough kinetic energy to fuel a panic attack. The action comes in fragmented bursts, and the timeline zips back and forth and back and forth like an aerobics instructor having a psychotic break. The manic chaos certainly is reminiscent of the information overload of the web, but the lack of a logical thread to hang onto can get as overwhelming as a Philly.com comment thread.
The characters, who are both cartoonish and brutally real, include sisters Agnes (Charlotte Ford) and Valerie (Christie Parker). Agnes describes herself as an oversexed “crazy skinny obsessed monster.” Valerie is a “super hot angry dyke.” Or that could just be the online persona she assumes for her blog—it’s hard to say. In Pretty Pretty, identities change as easily as screen names.
Lighting, video and set designer Jorge Cousineau’s contributions can’t be overstated. His work convincingly blurs the lines between the real and artificial worlds until it becomes difficult to distinguish what is real and what is imagined—a physical incarnation of the characters’ afflictions. No sooner do we meet Agnes and Valerie than they leave us to pop up in a video in a hotel room. (People do this a lot in director Joe Canuso’s fluid staging). A moment later, when the sisters reappear in person, that same hotel room from the video is fully realized on the stage.
There, the sisters sexually entertain a drunken anti-abortion crusader, then plug him full of bullets and post a photo of his dead body online. The hotel scene is then repeated, except this time it’s two guys (Jered McLenigan and Allen Radway, dressed as the sisters) as the murderers, pummeling Agnes with a sledgehammer (the flying blood is one of the production’s most realistic effects) and having sex with her dead body.
And that’s just the opening.
Scenes are connected by events, which are replayed using different characters and genders. Sometimes we see events occur onstage, sometimes on video. This unusual nonlinear structure, which feels a bit like clicking through tenuously linked YouTube videos, can be maddening to watch. But it can also be gruesomely magnetic, the proverbial car accident from which we can’t turn away.
Even at a brief 95 minutes, the over-the-top violence gets tedious and repetitive, and in lesser hands Pretty Pretty could have been a truly hopeless mess. However, the production is nimbly executed and well-performed enough that we are able to make some sense of the chaos. Canuso keeps things so tongue-in-cheek that we don’t take the horrific events that occur with alarming regularity too seriously, but because the performers are invested in their characters we can’t dismiss it entirely.
Parker and especially Ford (who may be the best actress in Philadelphia) are terrific as the sisters, perfectly embodying the jarring tone of Callaghan’s satire. Without formally breaking the fourth wall, there’s always a sense that their characters are performing. Whether they’re wrestling in jello or snorting cocaine off each other’s bodies, Parker and Ford capture their characters’ larger-than-life personas by exaggerating every gesture and facial expression. It’s completely ridiculous overacting, but so consistent that they create their own odd authenticity.
Male cast members Radway and McLenigan are likewise effective; so is Amy Smith, who, wearing an absurdly hideous lavender aerobics outfit, gives a physical performance as Fonda, here depicted as a relentlessly perky inspirational figure who delivers lessons in etiquette and acts as a muse for the other characters. The movie star-cum-sex symbol-cum-political activist-cum-most despised woman in America-cum-feminist-cum-aerobics guru is a perfect muse for Callaghan’s interest in identity. (Callaghan incidentally also writes for the Showtime series The United States of Tara, the lead being a woman with dissociative identity disorder, which used to be known as multiple personalities.)
Pretty Pretty is often sickening to watch, but it isn’t mindless. While the play’s visceral, jumpy presentation of shifting identities and sexual power trips moves so quickly that we don’t have always have time to reflect on, analyze or even notice the nuances, Pretty Pretty eventually emerges as an effective attack on misogyny and violence, and a provocative look at gender and identity. The gratuitous violence and graphic imagery is clearly not for everyone; but if you’re looking for an alternative to the wave of treacle that overruns holiday-season stages, Theatre Exile is guaranteed to get your attention.
That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play
Through Dec. 5.
Christ Church Neighborhood House,
20 N. American St.