By REBECCA WAITS
[Trigger Warning: multiple mentions of rape, rape culture, vaginas]
Hey, my theater editor asks, do you want to go see this new rape play? I think you’d really like it! I pause and ask myself internally, have I typecast myself as a feminist writer? Or is it simply just appropriate for a young female comedy writer to go cover a self-proclaimed “rape comedy” and attempt to make sense of what that means, or could possibly be? Before I know it, I’ve exclaimed, “Sold! You had me at ‘rape play’!” and I’m in the dark off of Lombard, traipsing behind a gargantuan industrial complex that’s posed conspicuously between a narrow street and several railroad tracks. We follow carefully placed arrow signs down a gravel road to a side door entrance, lit by a single bulb. What surrealist, disorienting alley has Portland led me down this time? I didn’t think we even had alleys. What, exactly, have I gotten myself into?
What I got myself into was the Headwaters Theater space, where Boom Arts presented one of the most intense, emotionally charged, confrontational performances I think I’ve ever experienced – and believe you me, it is an experience. Boom Arts has been bringing provocative, relevant and vital works to Portland since 2012, headed by curator/producer Ruth Wikler-Luker. This season, she’s brought us “genre-straddling” NYC artist Adrienne Truscott, who has focused for 15 years on creating work that transcends boundaries and shape-shifts traditional forms, seeking to upend assumptions and challenge both herself and her audiences. With the West Coast premiere of Asking For It, Adrienne has done something unthinkable and darn-near inconceivable: she has, as a woman, managed to make rape funny. (I know, I know … don’t worry, we’ll get into it.)
The title tells you much of what you need to know:
Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy & Little Else!
Okay, so that’s the Who and the What. The performance itself seems to beg the question “Why?”
Bursting out of the gate, naked from the waist down, Truscott traipses commandingly across a bare-bones stage in six-inch platform heels and a frantic pile of bras, wigs, and denim jackets, which come on and off in hilariously choreographed spasms throughout the show.
Placed carefully on tables and chairs are a baker’s dozen of headshots of successful men (mostly comedians, a rapper, and Bill Cosby) who either have rape joke material, or who have been accused/convicted of sexual assault themselves. Chugging through a large case of Coors Light, she careens us tipsily through a sassy-ass cocktail of monologue, comedy, scene re-enactment, video projections, and celebrity interrogations.
With a fire in her eyes (which one really notices while self-consciously avoiding staring at a woman’s twat), Truscott has the audience rolling in the aisles and hanging on her every word, a powerfully charming, light Southern twang backed by a big-city Brooklyn bravado that could no doubt knock your teeth out if disrespected.
“What’s funny?” she asks. “What’s a joke? What’s comedy? What’s rape?”
These are the questions she seeks to explore through an hour of multimedia socio-cultural analysis; but it ain’t a textbook-based lecture hall. It’s stories. It’s jokes. It’s statistics, projected through the lens of the harassment, assault and discrimination that we as women face every day. It’s crass, brash, lewd, and somehow, through it all, fucking hilarious.
I believe there is true value in shock. In our desensitized world, maybe the idea of a naked one-woman show initially sounds pretentious, or played-out, passé. I mean, what a gimmick, right? But behind the “look at me!” labia-curtain lies a world of questions for our culture and ourselves. (Such as: Why are rape and assault statistics still so high? Why is sexual violence becoming an acceptable inevitability? Why are female bloggers receiving daily death threats for contesting that another white guy’s rape joke was shitty and unnecessary? Why are we still so puritanically averse to the honesty of a woman’s bare body in one context, yet titillated by it in another? What happens when a woman plays out a scene of raping a man, in excruciating detail, and the audience laughs, loudly yet with tangible discomfort? And so forth.)
What seems most fearless is not just putting her pussy front and center; it’s Truscott’s complete lack of a Fourth Wall. She professes no boundaries, much like rape culture. These are not the regular circumstances under which most of us have a vagina in our faces for an hour (although, to be fair, I don’t know your life). She careens in and out of the audience and engages with love, humor, and brute honesty. She is not our object of desire at a strip club, coyly writhing to arouse dollars. She is not assaultive or even particularly aggressive. She’s riding the line and pushing the boundaries of what we’re used to, with bare-assed, naked truth. She playfully opens the evening reminding you, bush-forward, that you’re going with her on this journey “whether you like it or not! Ha!”
Taking another swig from her second tall boy, she asks the audience if anyone has a banana, which a man miraculously produces from a pannier bag. “Oh, sweet, can I have that? Thanks, honey. What? I’m not gonna do anything WEIRD with it! Jesus.” She accepts the fruit gleefully from the audience member, and uses it innocently as a banana-phone, gradually consuming it throughout the show.
“I feel really comfortable, even if none of you are!”
And really, as a culture, what makes us more uncomfortable than seeing a woman comfortable with herself? Unafraid of confrontation. Unafraid to face a hideous cultural reality and try to dissect it. Unafraid to face her own vulnerability, which gleams like a beacon of light that the audience is compelled to follow, moths to a sex-positive flame.
The show also maintains integrity about the realities we face in a landscape of unending sexual violence, somehow, without feeling “heavy.” I actually left feeling brighter, like a weight had been lifted, rather than placed upon me. And who the hell else can pull that off?
However, an hour did not feel quite complete enough – although it was opening night, some elements felt less explored. Several of the men framed smiling in photographs were nodded or alluded to, but they were not engaged with enough to merit the space they took up on stage; it didn’t feel fleshed out (heh.) Comedian Louis CK’s face was front and center, but his recent sexual assault allegations were never even mentioned. Rapper Rick Ro$$’s honorable rape mention delved briefly into the harsh sexual violence of mainstream rap lyrics, but ultimately just provided a chance for a hella cheap (and uncalled for) blackface joke. As a firm believer in the importance of Chekov’s Gun, I was disappointed that these men whose faces were so prominent, were never properly aggrandized or interrogated. That aspect did not satisfy my deep feminist lust for some sort of tangible revenge against successful performers who decry censorship and yelp for “free speech!”, but who simultaneously would probably be super grossed out by this, a show where a woman’s pussy-power calls the shots, unironically.
Coming from a deep theatrical background of circus, cabaret, and general clownery, Truscott says she has learned a certain type of fearlessness about performance. That fearlessness is undeniable here, and the word “brave” doesn’t really begin to describe what Asking For It has done as a performance piece. Asking For It is an eye-opening, lip-opening, and surprisingly fun juxtaposition of the difficult narrative arc we have developed around sexual assault and rape culture in general.
A very smart decision was made to open each evening with a preshow performance, curated by local comedian/artist Jen Tam. Each night features local female musicians and comedians, a perfect way to ease an audience into unknown and unpredictable comic territory.
On closing night, Saturday October 24th, Boom Arts Bagel Benefit invites you to attend a discussion with Adrienne herself, to “ponder art, feminism, and the politics of making people uncomfortable over bagels and coffee.” In this economy? You’d be foolish to miss out on such an opportunity for crucial carbs and conversation.
Final shows Wednesday-Saturday, Oct. 21-24
Music & Comedy Preshow by Am I Right Ladies? starts at 7:30p.m. (Full lineup of performers here)
Asking For It starts at 8:30pm
$20 General Admission/$30 Premium Reserved/$12 Students with ID