Alice Birch’s play Revolt. She said. Revolt again. is impossibly difficult to put into words. And that’s sort of the point. Because words are inadequate to describe, let alone remedy, all of the injustices women face. At least the words we have in this society, dominated by white men, where we speak a language of patriarchy: “Make love to you.” “I want you to be my wife.” Where we still laugh at jokes about rape, assault, and violence against women.
This is the world that Birch was taking on when she was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company to write a play responding to “the provocation that well-behaved women seldom make history.” She took her commission seriously. The stage directions in her play — which are generally sparse — include one bold-faced sentence: “Most importantly, this play should not be well-behaved.”
Where words are inadequate, though, Third Rail Rep’s company and cast are up to the task. Director Rebecca Lingafelter has taken Birch’s brilliant words and sparse stage direction and brought the play fully to life in the intimate Coho Theatre space. The pacing is tight and breakneck, whether the scene seems tightly staged or like a free-for-all. Scenic designer Jenny Ampersand’s black wall and stage are interrupted by a patch of finished wall and linoleum (the backstage you will walk through to get to your seat is far more elaborate than the on-stage stage). Ampersand is also the costume designer, so you might wonder if a pair of discarded shoes is scenic or costume design. But, of course, it’s both.
The cast includes four astounding female actors (powerhouses Maureen Porter, Andrea Vernae, Sarah Smith, and Alex Ramirez de Cruz) and one male (Rolland Walsh, whose characters you might feel sorry for if you forget, for a moment, that he is the representation of all men here … and they have it all coming).
Before the action even begins, we are let in on the importance here of language (or the lack thereof): The powerful Vernae sets the scene using an old-school overhead projector (a nice choice by Lingafelter, with props master Rosie Lambert): “REVOLUTIONIZE THE LANGUAGE,” her projection says. And then: “(INVERT IT.)”
From there, we jump straight to a couple (Ramirez de Cruz and Walsh) sitting at a table, after a nice dinner. He objectifies her and obsesses over her in every way you can imagine. He pays her compliments, but his language makes it clear he isn’t really thinking about her at all. And she takes back that language in a way that is both shocking and delightful.
The next scene is about revolutionizing the world: “(DO NOT MARRY.)” It features Smith — a quiet force in every scene she’s in — and Walsh. It is not nearly the surprise of the prior scene (or those that follow, truth be told), but Smith’s unhappily-proposed-to girlfriend makes a timely comparison to marriage that you won’t soon forget.
In the next scene, Vernae revolutionizes the work, much to the chagrin of her boss, portrayed again by Walsh. Vernae’s character has decided she no longer wants to work on Mondays, and Walsh’s character cannot deal with this. In fact, he can’t understand anything she says (seemingly because he’s not, in fact, listening to her). He can see her face, though, and he tells her multiple times how she feels, or should feel: “You don’t seem fine” and “You really care about this” and “Stop smiling.” But he never really listens. She, like the other women in these interactions with Walsh’s characters, is taking control of her situation and confusing men in the process.
The next couple of scenes include only women: There is a hilarious-turned-wrenching one — “REVOLUTIONIZE THE BODY (MAKE IT SEXUALLY AVAILABLE CONSTANTLY)” — featuring Vernae and Ramirez de Cruz as store employees shaming a woman (Porter) sprawled half-naked in an aisle. Porter’s character lies silent on the floor for longer than you expect. But when she rises and begins speaking, everyone — audience, store employees — sees her entirely differently “This world can never attack me again,” she says, “because I choose it.” After that is a difficult and bloody scene featuring three generations (or are they?) played — youngest to oldest — by Ramirez de Cruz, Smith, and Porter. “Was it because I was a girl?” Smith pleads. “Did I ruin your life?” Vernae, meanwhile, updates the projector throughout the scene, as the three women on stage are changing and revolutionizing all of it.
As the scenes progress, the lines between the characters and actors blur more and more, until you aren’t sure what is scripted and what isn’t (hint: it pretty much all is); what is “real” and what is staged.
The penultimate act might be described as chaos or “experimental” (but this is no experiment). All the characters here have a part, some connected, but many not. Vernae is running running running, but she has something to say — will she ever get to say it? Porter ties herself down by her pantyhose. Smith does her makeup and then tries to describe things — women, mainly — and ends up at a complete loss: “She’s lots of adjectives.” But, because there are always words to describe men: “Him? He’s great.” — Ramirez de Cruz tries to protect her property (or is it something else?) from Walsh, who keeps on insisting he hates porn (don’t they all?). Those last two also spend that act half-dressed. If you find yourself wondering why he’s in his underwear, maybe you should ask the same about her?
(Birch’s direction: “If a woman has to get a bit naked at any point, then the men should get naked also to redress the balance.” Thank you.)
The tricky thing with redressing the balance, though, comes back to the language. The words we use to describe women — “cellulite” and “round” and “emotional” and “manipulative” (they’re all here) — are not adequate to the task at hand here, which is equality: “We’ve got literally so much work to do!” a character screams amid the chaos. And then one actor — it was Porter the night I saw it, but they alternate, which is incredible — gives a beautiful, maddeningly truthful speech about how our thinking about equality and things being right isn’t enough; action is required. It’s a call to arms, of sorts. A wake-up call. A calling-out: “Wastelands had grown where we thought we were building mountains.”
There is a final scene, which I won’t give away except to say it is utterly the opposite of the loud, bright chaos that precedes it.
The acting is astonishing, across the board. It is impossible to single out one fine performance among them, other than to say that Walsh gives a fine performance, but the women are the stars here: They bleed and cry and rage and wreak total havoc. They grieve and need and yearn. They, sadly, often apologize for their actions after taking them — as women so often do. And, when they don’t, you expect them to.
This is must-see Portland theater for all the reasons you can think of: It features that magnificent cast of some of Portland’s finest (Smith is the relative newcomer, but those who saw her in CoHo’s The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence last year are well-acquainted with the effortless way she can steal a show). It is hilarious and entertaining (75 minutes flies by so swiftly in this company’s hands; you won’t be ready for it to end). But, mostly, you need to see this because it’s tackling important issues that we should all be (doing more than) thinking about. See it soon, because once you see one actor perform that monologue in the last act, you’ll want to go back to see the others perform it. Plus, there is so much going on here that you’ll need at least a few viewings to begin to absorb it.
Third Rail Rep’s Revolt. She said. Revolt again. continues through June 16 at CoHo Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.