At its heart, Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn is a play about four women sitting around talking about feminism. As Aurora Theatre Company’s Bay Area premiere demonstrates, however, it’s a heck of a lot more entertaining than that sounds. Catherine (a marvelously self-assured Marilee Talkington) is a hotshot feminist academic writing about pop culture—torture porn, reality TV, you name it—but she’s returned to her home town to take care of her mother after a heart attack. Lillian Bogovich’s upbeat and eager-to-please Alice seems pretty spry and would much rather wait on her daughter than vice versa.
But Catherine’s coming home to a lot more than that. See, when she was in grad school her roommate “stole” her boyfriend while Catherine was away for a year, and now they’re married. But the once-brilliant Don (an effectively understated and casual Gabriel Marin) lost all ambition and has settled into an unchallenging job as a disciplinary dean, and his wife Gwen (Rebecca Schweitzer, all outgoing chattiness barely concealing desperate anxiety) resents him for his complacency, his pot and porn habits, his low sex drive, and pretty much everything else. Now both Catherine and Gwen are thinking a lot about the road not taken, about family versus career and everything they’ve sacrificed for the lives they chose.
This comes out a lot in their conversations about feminism as part of an informal class that Catherine’s teaching, leading to such unlikely discussions as whether antifeminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly had some good points. Even the most old-fashioned notions are put back on the table, such as whether men have any incentive to marry a woman with whom they’re already having sex—a troubling transactional point of view usually made more offensive through barnyard metaphors. Further provoking the debate is Gwen’s ex-babysitter, Avery (Nicole Javier, blasé and standoffish), an aspiring reality-show star who doesn’t identify as a feminist.
Director Desdemona Chiang’s staging is dynamic and funny in a way that mixes realistic and over-the-top performances willy-nilly. Talkington is totally believable in both Catherine’s intellectual acuity and her midlife crisis, as is Marin’s amiable torpor as Don, while the others are pitched a bit higher, larger than life. Kate Boyd’s versatile set takes us from the cozy backyard of a house to the living room of another with a few small shifts, and Brendan Aanes’ sound design is peppered with some curiously cheesy interstitial music, especially early in the show.
Although the artificiality of the setup is sometimes transparent (especially the ending), Gionfriddo’s dialogue is sharp and funny and insightful about human nature, as was the case with her play Becky Shaw at San Francisco Playhouse a couple years ago. That’s not to say that arguments like it being wise of women to act helpless to hoodwink men into wanting to be with them are valid per se, but the characters’ personal reasons for entertaining these notions feel credible. Mostly these discussions, while long and sometimes didactic, are just fun, whether they’re about horror films as expressing the collective fears of a generation or the semantic difference between exclusively hooking up and hooking up exclusively.
Show #78 of 2014, attended September 4.