Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Rapture, Blister, Burn
Also see Wally's review of The Seven
As a playwright, I've often found myself answering the question: why do you prefer to write in the medium of theater? This one's easy. In the theater, stories get told, conflict gets created and resolved, and serious issues get addressed just by throwing a bunch of interesting characters together and letting them jabber at each other for two hours. Sometimes the jabbering is emotionally riveting, sometimes uproariously funny, or on special occasions perspective-alteringly instructive. In Ms. Gionfriddo's play, which premiered at Playwrights Horizons in New York City in 2012, the jabber is quite jabbery without the gibber.
Rapture, Blister, Burn is populated by four women who have a hell of a lot to say about their place in the seismically conversional feminist landscape. There isn't just one feminist school of thought here; there are several, depending on whether one adheres to tradition or bucks it, whether empowerment is related to choice or to societal expectation; and, at the end of the day, whether a woman requires professional fulfillment, family fulfillment, or something in between to be truly happy with herself.
All tough stuff that gets talked out, dissected, informed by personal experience and colored by messy emotional connections. Ms. Gionfriddo has written a play which unfolds in parts like a college seminar, with the requisite articulation and argument, but she also gives us the metaphorical coffee and donuts that sustain its participants. Good coffee. Good donuts. But are her characters being properly nourished, as a result?
Cathy is a well-known TV talking-head superstar whose specialty is torture porn and reality TV. She returns to her home in New England to spend some time with her mother Alice, who has had a heart attack. Cathy gets a job teaching feminism at a local college where her old boyfriend Don serves as dean. Don and his wife Gwen have known Cathy since they were all in college. Don wanted to marry Cathy but circumstances put him instead into the arms of Gwen. Cathy and Don pursued careers in academia. Gwen dropped out of school and became a mom. Cathy and Don drink. Gwen is now going to AA. Avery, a twenty-one-year-old child of the 21st century, plays a catalytic role in how each of these characters defend and rue their life choices.
Ms. Gionfriddo's play treads ground well trod, while offering areas of feminist theory that might give pause: e.g. perhaps anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly was right about a thing or two; maybe slasher movies are female-empowering because they usually involve a lone, surviving female standing up to the movie villain in the climax without a man's help. And because we live in an age in which personal and institutional misogyny is being exposed at the highest levels of government and commerce, audiences attending NMAL's new production of Rapture, Blister, Burn, will find it hard to leave at the door Rudolph Giuliani's recent attacks on Stormy Daniel's choice of profession as a disqualification for credibility and humanity. Theater can't help itself. Theater is always relevant.
The production is graced by the talents of some of our town's finest actors. Leslie Fleming-Mitchell excels as Catherine, whom the script asks to search her soul and heart. Leslie must, and does, make of Cathy someone whom we try to understand and for whom we care. This is not as easy as it sounds, since the torch Cathy has long carried for Dean Don is not easily defensible in Gionfriddo's script. David Christian Welborn is a wonderful actor who delivers an enjoyable performance as Don, but Don is basically an unmotivated, porn-loving, pot-smoking under-achiever (he's the dean of a small liberal arts college, but it ain't a great liberal arts college) and you can see how hard Welborn has to work to make this character sympathetic.
Madeleine Garcia, as the highly opinionated and incredibly-motivated college student Avery, brightens the stage in each of her fiery scenes. Her animation and intensity are great fun to watch. I wish that Catherine's mother Alice was a more deeply written character. Ann Roylance, who plays her, is a great actress and deserves meatier and more consequential roles than this.
I was most taken, however, with the performance of Vanessa Rios y Valles who brings depth, pain, and humor to the archetypical role of regretful mother, wife and homemaker. What a nice performance.
Skip Rapoport's lighting design is up to his usual high standards, giving us both the warmth of a sunrise and the crepuscular blue of eventide. I also enjoyed director Robert Benedetti's decision to move this play outside (it often plays inside Cathy's mother's house) and the backyard set designed for this production works fine. Taking the action outdoors creates a much more visceral environment for the characters' interactions. (And I always like plays with crickets and birdsong.)
Overall, Benedetti, who serves as artistic director for NMAL, has done a wonderful job of taking a polemical play and giving it places to pop. He understands that this is a play built around important issues and those issues' impact on the lives of real human beings; but he also knows that the jabber, which is how stories get told on the stage, must come from characters we care about, and those characters should be brought to life with urgency, humor and heart.
Rapture, Blister, Burn, through June 24, 2018, at Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie B, Santa Fe NM. Thursday through Saturday at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. For information, visit www.teatroparaguas.org or www.nmactorslab.com, or call 505-424-1601. The running time is slightly over two hours, including one intermission.