That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play
Reviewed by Terry Morgan
Son of Semele Ensemble
Through June 19
The thrill of creating an experimental theatre piece lies in being able to express something one couldn’t in the standard mode. The downside is that not all experiments are a success.
Sheila Callaghan’s That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play is an ambitious attempt to explore the complexities of female self-image and the way in which the male-dominated media twists that image for its own ends. Son of Semele’s production is sharply directed and well-acted, but the play itself is an uneven mix of compelling moments and scenes that don’t quite work.
Agnes (Cindy Nguyen) and Valerie (Paula Rebelo) have brought a right-to-life supporter back to their hotel room, ostensibly for sex, when in fact they intend to kill him. In the next scene, Owen (Will Bradley) and Rodney (Tope Oni) do the same to Agnes, albeit much more violently. An aerobicizing Jane Fonda from the 80s (Betsy Moore) shows up and tells Agnes and Valerie to keep their chins up and take whatever life throws at them, with dignity; by contrast, she offers comfort to the vicious (yet pathetic) Owen, who converts the women’s experiences into a Hollywood action screenplay, recasting them as hot lesbians who get gruesomely murdered.
Nguyen brings a desperate party girl energy to Agnes, who is both an abused person and an abuser. Rebelo’s Valerie is a cooler intellect who unexpectedly explodes into rage now and again. They’re both quite good, morphing their roles as the tricky writing demands. Bradley delivers a terrific monologue about being pretty and wanting to destroy pretty people, and Oni gets a lot of comic mileage from a war story where every character has a moniker that begins with “Old.” Moore is properly peppy as Fonda, but the inclusion of this character never pays off in any satisfying way.
Director Marya Mazor is up to the challenge of the play. Her staging transitions smoothly from one disparate thing to another: for example, a dinner party suddenly becomes a wrestling match and then a pillow fight. Callaghan deserves credit for taking on a complicated issue in such a creative way, and the sequences that work — the aforementioned “pretty” speech, or a scene where all three actresses proclaim their identities as strong, independent women but keep falling down while saying it — are memorable. Other scenes, unfortunately, seem needlessly crude and self-indulgent, such as a description of a screenplay in excessive detail. Also, after barreling along with propulsive energy, the piece slows to a disappointing crawl in its final third.
Son of Semele Ensemble, 3301 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; Thur.-Sat. 8:00 p.m.; Sun. 5:00 p.m.; through June 19. www.sonofsemele.org. Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes.