BWW Reviews: A Brilliantly Ugly PRETTY PRETTY at the Strand

By: Feb. 06, 2012
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That Pretty Pretty Or, The Rape Play, by Sheila Callaghan, is a great shaggy dog of a show, two hours of whimsically-relatEd Battles in the border war of the sexes. How it all fits together may not be totally apparent after one viewing, but it is a tribute to the play and its new staging at Baltimore's Strand Theater (apparently the second ever) that I'd willingly go back and see it again to work on assembling it more tightly in my mind.

In general outline, though, there is one "reality" to the action, the writing and finally the public reception of a sensational novel by Owen (R. Brett Rohrer), and several fantasy sequences in which bits of the novel-in-progress come to life, trial runs that may or may not make it into the finished work.  The subjects of the emerging work are two female characters, strippers named Valerie and Agnes (Kerry Brady and Joanna Maria Fortuna), whose depiction seems to touch on every trope in Owen's misogynistic imagination.  They are avenging lesbian angels who kill men for revenge and then blog about it, or, in a scene with nearly identical language but with the men's lines and the women's lines swapped, they become abject victims of murderous male violence. They are jello wrestlers. They are characters from a telenovela.  What they are not ever permitted to be, however, is anything other than figments of a fantastically off-base male imagination.

To help them get through the challenging inconsistencies, not to mention indignities, of being characters in Owen's book – and to help Owen work through his conflicts in writing the book – everyone calls on Jane Fonda (Leah Raulerson), to be muse and guide.  Wearing a blue leotard, she lends dignity (a word often repeated of her persona) and empowerment to the strippers by leading their workouts (or, at a pinch, soft shoe dance routines), and provides an initiation into the female world view for Owen (guiding him, for instance, through the miracle of childbirth – with him as the one in labor, that moment depicted in a photo appearing with this review).

Owen appears to suffer from writer's block, mainly because he has no idea about women and/or how to write about them. Now, in depicting Owen's male perspective, shared with his friend Rodney (Jimmy Heyworth), Callaghan is not writing about anything generic. She is specifically writing about the perspective of the tough, violent male limned in the plays and movies of David Rabe, David Mamet, Quentin Tarrantino, Neil LaBute etc.  I'm not sure whether anyone let Callaghan in on it, but that kind of masculine personality is actually a bit of a fiction perpetuated by male writers, just as divorced from truth of maleness as the Faster, Pussycat, Kill, Kill stereotypes Owen entertains are from the truth of femaleness. You know: lots of cusswords, lots of sophomoric come-ons to the woman who comes on the scene (Jane Fonda bringing hotel room service), petty vandalism, war mongering, hints of repressed gayness behind the misogyny.

In short, in writing about how men get it wrong when writing about women Callahan gets the men wrong (though in so doing she's admittedly only following the lead of some male writers).  Whether going for this extreme stereotype of the male psyche to the exclusion of all else was deliberate (an hommage, if you will, to Mamet et al. or maybe just exaggeration to make a dramatic point) or inadvertent, I cannot tell. It's pretty funny in a dark way, as disparaging stereotypes tend to be, so it may be deliberate.

In any event, the play is not committed to a firm point of view about any point of plot or theme, any more than there is an immutable plot or theme to Owen's book. With one exception. There is a consistent theme of anger at the way men perceive women – and abuse, rape, belittle and objectify them. Owen's woman-hating fantasy may not reflect reality, but that doesn't make it harmless. That point can make the show hard to watch at moments, as it wends its way through scenes of imagined rape and murder.

But it wouldn't do to look away.  There's painful humor at every painful turn. For instance, in a (fantasized) rape and murder that occurs near the end, Owen, imagining himself as the rapist, who is also the victim's doctor, describes what he is about to do to the victim just like a physician explaining a medical procedure to a patient.  The incongruity of reassuring tone and horrific actions is unique in my theatergoing experience.

And another unique thing: I've not seen a theater laid out the way the Strand was for this production, with the stage spread across the entire width of the building, and the audience on either side.  This was neither proscenium arch theater nor theater in the round. The annoying characteristic of the latter is that the action must be continuously angling to all vantagepoints, distributing decent views and bad ones equally to each member of the audience.  With front-and-back theater, as we might call it, the intimacy and immediacy of the subject boasted by theater in the round is preserved but with fewer bad-view moments. The set is two hotel rooms, mirror images, one decked out in red for the fantasy, one in brown for the "reality." The arrangement allows audiences members to be close to both.

The cast is uniformly excellent, as is the direction by Jayme Kilburn.  In an audience discussion afterwards, Kilburn's explication of her directorial choices always sounded reasonable and in keeping with the play as written, which is the thing one usually most desires of a director. Kilburn, who founded the Strand ensemble with the objective of creating a place for theater by and about women, is making this her last production with the group, after three and a half seasons, and there was a valediction in the air.  The company, however, seems full of vitality, and it will forge ahead, under the artistic direction of internationally-known performer Rain Pryor.

What Callaghan has done with Strand is make of it a vital part of the most vital neighborhood in Baltimore theater, the string of houses and companies doing business between 17th Street and Meadow Mill (Everyman, Single Carrot, Mobtown, the Strand, and others), where innovation and excitement thrive. That Pretty Pretty is a good way to mark her legacy and the Strand's place in that firmament.

That Pretty Pretty OR The Rape Play, by Sheila Callaghan, directed by Jayme Kilburn, through February 18 at the Strand Theater, 1823 N. Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21201.  Tickets $20,, (443) 874-4917. Violence, gunplay, sexual assault, extreme language.


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