“Can feminism be funny?” inquiring minds at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company want to know. For that is the conundrum that connects Sheila Callaghan’s Women Laughing Alone With Salad, Woolly’s cheeky hit comedy in last season’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival, and the audacious whimsy of Jen Silverman’s new comedy Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops, just opened at Woolly in a doozy of production.
Silverman’s full title for the show bears quoting in all its all-caps brazenness:
COLLECTIVE RAGE: A PLAY IN FIVE BOOPS; IN ESSENCE, A QUEER AND OCCASIONALLY HAZARDOUS EXPLORATION; DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN YOU WERE IN MIDDLE SCHOOL AND YOU READ ABOUT SHACKLETON AND HOW HE EXPLORED THE ARCTIC?; IMAGINE THE ARCTIC AS A PUSSY AND IT’S SORT OF LIKE THAT
If the word pussy there puts you off, this play may not be for you. The characters pronounce it so often, it becomes a womantra.
Back in the 1990s, Eve Ensler’s breakthrough The Vagina Monologues defanged and reclaimed the word vagina. Now Silverman’s in-your-face Collective Rage is giving pussy a place in the fun.
Woolly likes to program “edgy plays that piss off Republican senators,” said Managing Director Meghan Pressman in her opening night pre-show remarks. Fair warning then: This show’s definitely not for those white guys. Because boy does it get blue.
Back in the 1970s, a feminist women’s health movement emerged that taught women how to use vaginal speculums to do self-exams. At about the same time there were workshops for women that encouraged masturbation, on one’s own or in groups, and offered effective how-tos. It was the heyday of “No thank you. I’m just looking. And I can help myself.”
That adventurous spirit of feminist-inspired exploration suffuses Silverman’s new play in a most marvelous way. We are barely ten minutes into it when hand mirrors are produced and members of the all-female cast are holding them under themselves to appreciate the pleasant view down there. Before long the characters’ wickedly witty repartee is rife with references to sapphic satisfactions.
And who are these characters exactly? Finding out is half the fun. (The other half is Silverman’s quicksilver wit). There are five of them, and each is named Betty Boop—after a doll-like cartoon character popular in the 1930s who had bee-sting lips, wide mascara’ed eyes, black pin curls, dainty shoes, and preternatural curves. Silverman’s Betty Boop conceit is not only silly and cute but also quite serious—it’s cleverly used to doll up the Woolly lobby, and it suggests that each Betty is a caricature in quest of an authentic life.
We meet the five Bettys against a stark, hard, all-yellow set designed by Dane Laffrey and lit by Colin K. Bill—as if they are boxed in but don’t know it.
Betty Boop 1 (a simply stunning Beth Hylton) is the sleek, fashionable blond trophy wife of a very very rich man with whom she is utterly bored. She has no women friends. Her marriage is empty. She’s the sort of privileged white woman for whom another Betty, the Friedan one, would have made sense.
Betty Boop 2 (Dorea Schmidt, whose poignant performance will melt your heart) is also unhappily married, to a man of more modest means; and she is so timid, friendless, and lonely, she pathetically makes her hand into a puppet for companionship. Back in the day Helen Gurley Brown would have dubbed her a mouseburger.
Betty Boop 3 (an Amazonian-amazing Natascia Diaz) is a spitfire bi-affectionate Latina who after being Betty 1’s guest at “the theatah” becomes an avid thesbian. She leads the other Bettys in putting on a show—a hilariously muddled version of the play within the play the thinks was called Summer’s Midnight Dream. She’d have dug María Irene Fornés and Gloria Anzaldúa.
Betty Boop 4 (a terrifically tough Kate Rigg) is a stone butch dyke who needs no man in her life for anything, including for fixing her truck. She and Leslie Feinberg might have tooled around and canoodled like body-and-soulmates, except that Betty Boop 4 is hot for Betty Boop 5.
Betty Boop 5 (in a knockout performance by Felicia Curry you can’t take your eyes off) is a black, nonbinary, masculine-presenting, female-born badass who has spent time behind bars and is okay with female pronouns. She is Betty Boop 4’s truck buddy (the scenes when the two wenches wield wrenches are gutbusting funny); but in a surprising twist, she gets with another Betty. Her soul sistah would have been Audre Lorde; and if George Jackson were nonbinary, he’d be her Soledad bro.
Over the course of the play, the Bettys come together in assorted ways including, of all things, dinner parties (a possible nod to Judy Chicago’s iconic “The Dinner Party,” a triangular table set with labia). Then, in a stupendous stroke of stagecraft, their collective rage becomes a rave—and they begin lives outside the box.
Director Mike Donahue manages the Bettys’ unfolding character arcs in what becomes a world without men without ever manhandling anything. And Kelsey Hunt’s costumes are a wardrobe wonder, speaking volumes about the characters before they say a word. It is a production perfectly on point at every screwy turn.
My only reservation is that near the end the show’s effervescence goes somewhat flat for a short slow stretch, suggesting the script could lose ten minutes or so. But all is redeemed by the breathtakingly beautiful ending.
Jen Silverman’s Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops, delightfully staged at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, is sassy, saucy, and shrewdly funny. It finds what’s outrageously amusing in five boxed-in females’ lives. But it never makes fun. It only makes us laugh a lot. And maybe be inspired to break out of boxes.
Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops plays through October 9, 2016 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchased them online. Enter promo code “TAGG” for $25 tickets.
Originally published by DC Metro Theater Arts. Reprinted by permission.