Tonight’s performance of Theatre Exile’s production of THAT PRETTY PRETTY; OR THE RAPE PLAY by Sheila Callaghan had the juice, chutzpah, guts, gall, audacity, and, forgive a chauvinistic term, “balls,” to make you squirm, gasp, giggle and laugh as it hammered its message home. When two strippers, Agnes and Valerie, modeled loosely after Thelma and Louise, go on a rampage of revenge against those who have demeaned and raped them, the audience gets an eyeful and earful of colliding worlds of machismo and feminism in the telling of their story. There’s also “the naked truth behind the danger of sex, the thrill of violence and the price of love.” What happens when all that is laid out in front of you?
This play is definitely for mature audiences with some intelligence at work. So if you don’t fit the categories of mature or intelligent, this play’s not for you. Nor is it for those easily shocked by sex and violence. However, pure chauvinists and feminists might enjoy the challenge. I would suggest you have a youthful openness because there is some mindful manipulation going on. For those of us right in the healthy middle, well, there is the real challenge, isn’t there already? This is experience driven, not plot driven, so don’t expect a clean storyline. Oh, it comes out mostly at the end; the ending is a silence that truly proves powerful acting does not have to be spoken to be effective.
Theatre Exile says in its Artistic Statement that it “approaches our craft with a no-nonsense, no holds-barred style of storytelling” and it certainly does so here. It also says it matches “challenging scripts with Philadelphia’s top talent,” and I couldn’t agree more. The flawless performances of a truly ensemble cast were matched by the superb direction of Joe Canuso along the seamless tech design (set, lighting, video) by Jorge Cousineau and superb sound by Michael Kiley. Rosemarie McKelvey’s costumes were perfect. I’m sorry if I left anyone out. I think I’d be re-writing the program to give everyone credit for an excellent production. A terrifically produced show, visually and audibly the best I’ve experienced anywhere.
In spite of such perfection there’s always a “but,” isn’t there? In this case it’s about the play itself, not the players. If you’ll remember, I mentioned those of the audience in the “healthy middle,” and I really do believe that makes up most of us. At least in our minds, and that should matter. In my mind, we are who is left out. Shouldn’t we get credit, too? Some mention, some nod from the playwright that not all of us are idiots? Hopefully no one sees this play as a totally truthful representation about the world, as a slice of life; the message is grim if we are truly that way.
This is the work of an artist’s impressions written down for effect, and by that very nature the result can’t be totally real because it is colored by personal feelings and experiences; but it does get at the truth. That’s the best it can do and it does it well. An idealized world might be just as comical in its own way as this one is shocking. I believe there are men who are sensitive, who respect women, who don’t act at all like our male characters in the play, and that most women these days take the Jane Fonda stand themselves without prompting—or is that just the stripper variety. We try. Trying is good.
Sheila Callaghan’s THAT PRETTY PRETTY is entertaining, thinking, well-meaning and gritty performance art. It has moments of brilliance, lots of them. I was never bored. However, like an occasional Saturday Night Live bit that goes on long after we got the joke, it happened here once. At that moment, the play lost some of its punch, and as I said, I don’t think it is the production’s fault. A few audience members were squirming and murmuring toward the end; these are sure signs that not all is well. I, too, reached for my phone to check the time, but had shut it off dutifully before the show.
The ending couldn’t have been better played. A question asked but not heard by the audience and not answered that leaves us speechless, too. If you like “bare-knuckled” acting, and shows that demand audiences look at themselves truthfully, please come see Theatre Exile’s THAT PRETTY PRETTY; or THE RAPE PLAY. You won’t regret it. And, the Christ Church Neighborhood House in Philadelphia is the perfect venue.
THAT PRETTY PRETTY; or THE RAPE PLAY
by Sheila Callaghan
Directed by Joe Canuso
November 11 – December 5, 2010
Christ Church Neighborhood House
20 N. American Street (near 2nd and Market Sts)