Janie’s got her gun

Defunkt blows up the war of the sexes with Sheila Callaghan's "That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play"

What happens when a pair of radical ex-strippers on a homicidal Thelma and Louise road trip become the inspiration for a 4chan-tinted, Wes Anderson-style tale? In Defunkt’s new staging of Sheila Callaghan’s That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play, a radical Pandora’s box of no-apologies theater, gender-identity bending, and raw angst dusted with a heavy sugar-coating of pop culture lets loose.

Theater and television writer Callaghan’s script is poetically muscled, fervent, and meticulous in its craft, and director Paul Angelo takes on a tough job with a play that has enough stage directions to put George Balanchine in a spin. This highrise production has enough levels for the highbrow playgoing aesthete, and enough grit for lowbrow surveyors to take a shine to the blacker-than-black humor Callaghan is known for.

Jessica Tidd, Blake Stone, and Jessica Hillenbrand in “That Pretty Pretty. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

The play’s beginning echoes ancient Greek repetition in a fragmented cacophony, and throws the character’s identities and gender into a finely sharpened Cuisinart. It’s an accurate portrait of the creative process: dead-files, collected memories of conversations, cutouts from pictures, snatches of dialogue underlined in novels, all of it informing and nurturing the next creative spark. The dialogue of That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play is hyper-fresh, like an observation of people’s internet scrolling in a rundown Venice, California cafe.The play’s pacing is frenetic – somewhere between practice-shooting clay pigeons while high on cocaine and riding a rollercoaster that betrays the physics of killing thrill-seekers. Like a rotten snow globe found in the rubble of a decayed inner city, the pieces drift down and come into a cohesive narrative shape. This play is difficult to its core: Without Angelo’s experience on stage and the emotional and physical bravery of the cast, the lucid drama could fall flat.

The part of Beatrice in this dark comedy is the shape-shifting chameleon of female identity, Jane Fonda (Jacquelle Davis). Davis’s character connects the puzzle-pieces of narrative at times like an 18th century fitness guru automaton, and at others as a “dignified” caricature of female sex high on consumer steroids. Davis’s Fonda prances in a glittering body suit with stilettos wrapped at the ankle in a warm hug of leg warms. Her hair is perfectly natural, in grades of aerosol hairspray. In a Luis Buñuel-inspired dinner scene (replete with a plastic ham that’s made of enough BPA to give cancer to the entire audience) she clutcheslike a 21st century sex doll onto a colossal pepper grinder spilling the shavings of the seeds.

Veteran actors Jessica Tidd and Jessica Hillenbrand are the dynamic duo who’ve created a lifestyle informed by Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto. Their counterparts are Jacob Camp and Blake Stone, two toxic men who have a Wes Anderson-style privilege of artistic insulation and the yacht-rock aesthetic of Jared Kushner. The pinnacle of the play, and the place when the narrative begins to integrate, is at the end of the dinner, when Jane Fonda presents an amethyst Jell-O mold. Tidd and Hillenbrand strip down to their mid-priced sex shop lingerie and begin an epic WWE-inspired battle with the ’70s food icon.

When a peace accord begins and the audience discovers the Wizard of Oz hiding behind the play’s curtains, the action moves to a hospital, where the battle of the sexes – the war on women’s bodies – becomes literal. Fonda is put into rewind and trades her sweaty glow for the often-scorned Hanoi Jane decade of her life. The soap operatic over-carry of a Douglas Sirk film is a lifesaver for the audience, as the intimate destruction at hand unloads the violence men are capable of toward women. The pure pop art of the visuals on stage make it possible to take in That Pretty Pretty. Callaghan’s work uses the redundant irony of Gen X and makes it useful, as a fine tool to explore the shadows of our psyches and their interactions. Angelo and the cast are given high demands and excel at reaching them; by doing so can make demands on the audience. In the end we’re left in the dark, with more questions raised than answered – and that’s a good thing.

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Defunkt Theatre’s That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play continues through June 10 at The Back Door Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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