That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
February 21, 2009
A lot of slippery interwoven layers coalesce into Sheila Callaghan's tricky, exciting, and darkly funny new play, That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play. Parsing its overlapping stories with varying degrees of emotional and theatrical realism, punctuated by high-octane bursts of '80s hard-rock pop songs—and using Jane Fonda as a muse and throughline connecting the layers to one another—the piece investigates, among other things, how we create and receive stories and images (both to construct our own identities and to make sense of our surroundings) in a world packed full of narrative conventions and pre-packaged personas we can't escape; why we're simultaneously repulsed by and drawn to destructive and violent impulses and images; how ideas of gender feed into and are in turn fed by these sets of narratives.
Among the stories told, revised, and discarded here: Agnes and Valerie (Lisa Joyce and Danielle Slavick, each a beguiling mixture of canny and naïve, self-aware and dangerously un-self-conscious) are ex-stripper sisters on an interstate crime spree, posing as prostitutes to get close to male anti-abortion activists, then killing them and chronicling the whole thing on Val's blog. Constantly aware that they're characters in their own story, they're continually adjusting their affect and their reactions to fit the story Val is telling about them.
Or, Agnes is a girl beaten and hacked to death in a motel room by Owen and Rodney, two ordinary guys out for a good time who also blog about the murder—though even they self-edit to acknowledge the sledgehammer might be a bit over the top.
Or, Agnes is Owen's emotionally damaged ex-wife seeking to take Owen down into dark places with her. Owen's fantasy life includes being hit by and hitting Agnes; raping her; becoming her; having a baby; making out with and being beaten up by his best friend.
Or, Owen is just an utterly ordinary slacker guy holed up in a motel room trying to simultaneously write a screenplay about two strippers on a crime spree—with the help of his muse, the aforementioned Jane Fonda (a silky-smooth Annie MacNamara), who reminds him of his mother—and hang out with his best friend, Rodney (Joseph Gomez, both brutal and adorable), on leave from military service in Iraq.
Plus, Agnes and Valerie like to jello-wrestle. (Or, one set of the quasi-fictional versions of Agnes and Val conjured up by one of the storytellers in the play likes to jello-wrestle.)
Also, Owen is about to write a fantastically successful screenplay that includes lesbians, strippers, bulimics, the Iraqi resistance, incredible amounts of violence, a successful neurologist/rapist who happens to be named Owen, and a rape victim who never sheds a tear.
What makes the play so interesting is that almost every element is simultaneously operating on multiple levels—when the language in a particular scene almost directly echoes a previous scene, played out by different characters, for example, some of the things going on seem to be: theatrical device in the hands of the playwright, calling the audience's attention to the recurrence-with-a-twist; a sign of failure/lost creativity on the part of the screenwriter character, who keeps going back into the same fragments and trying to make them work; and a cultural trope that can't help but repeat in a set of similar circumstances. The play constantly shifts our perceptions of what's "real" inside its own play-world, what we take for granted and then are forced to reconsider. The more Callaghan seems to be stripping down, stylistically, to a conventional form of theatrical realism, the more the play traffics in—and mocks—utterly familiar conventions. The final scene is a beautifully satiric "interview" with Owen (the pitch-perfect Greg Keller, who's been terrific throughout but here walks a very fine line between sincerity and satire), now a star, taking questions from a dazzled audience and describing his film (which we've seen an over-the-top excerpt from and recognized as a Hollywood product reduced to absurdity) as brave and unpalatable truth an audience may not be brave enough to hear.
Callaghan's work tends to be linguistically dense, thick with lyric, metaphor- and image-packed prose, and it's fun to see her show an incisive and often wickedly funny ear for naturalistic dialogue, especially in the scenes between the guys.
The many tonal shifts make this a tricky piece to stage, and director Kip Fagan and the wonderful ensemble show extraordinary precision in keeping the lines demarcated both between the various scenes/layers and within the scenes as the characters shift among the various planes of self-awareness and naturalism/caricature/posturing. All the design elements work, too—witty and narrative-enhancing sound and lighting design by Eric Shim and Matt Frey; Jessica Pabst's elegant but somehow tongue-in-check costumes; Narelle Sissons's aggressively neutral motel-room set.
One tiny moment seems to sum up the methodology of That Pretty Pretty for me; it's not a particularly significant moment in the play but it shows how things work when everything's working together: in a moment of frustration, with Agnes and with her blog, Val mentally shifts gears. She says "let's get SUBTEXTY"—and everything changes. The lights turn subtly peach, desert-like; a soundscape of wind and wind chimes comes up; one of the women languidly lights a cigarette and the next few lines of dialogue are fraught with overweight pauses. They're psyching themselves—and us—into a Pinter knock-off, just for a moment. Then, of course, Agnes gets bored and starts singing Whitesnake accompanied by air guitar. These tiny pushes and pulls in who i's driving the storytelling, whose story is being told—or faked—or unimaginatively imagined—and how the play pivots around them, are what make it so interesting.