Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
The Theatre at Boston Court
Through March 19
Collective Rage, whose poster features a gal with soft eyes, a flexed bicep and a clenched fist, is subtitled “a play in 5 boops” because all five characters are named Betty Boop, after the cartoon figure conceived by Max Fleischer in 1930. Fleischer’s initial creation was a French poodle which was transformed, a couple of years later, into the curvaceous feminine cartoon we recognize today. In her films, the animated Betty flirted and teased, but ultimately resisted the efforts of would-be ravishers to take away her ”Boop-Oop-A-Doop.”
Directed by Lindsay Allbaugh, the Bettys in Jen Silverman’s comedy (distinguished for us in the program by a number from 1 to 5) are an assorted lot. Two of them, numbers 1 (Elyse Mirto) and 2 (Courtney Rackley), are rich, married and sexually unfulfilled. The other three are lesbians. Betty 3 (Anna Lamadrid) is a flamboyant Latina who prances around in high heels and a short tight red skirt. Betty 4 (Karen Anzoategui) and Betty 5 (Tracey A. Leigh) are butch women who like working on their trucks. Betty 4 is an ex-con who speaks with deceptive braggadocio to hide her vulnerable self that manifests in her warm feelings for Betty 3. Betty 5, a boxer, is a shy socially awkward person, whose world transforms the day Betty 1 enters her gym.
The meeting of these two Bettys signals an upturn in the play. Prior, the piece had tracked through familiar terrain, trumpeting tropes about wealthy uptight women from the Upper East Side, and (supposedly) hipper gay women who bait them with manifold references to “pussy.” Having confessed to living a celibate life, the timorous Betty 2 is persuaded to roll down her underwear and put a mirror between her knees to examine herself, an action that, it’s implied, puts her on the road to pleasure and self-empowerment.
But once an attraction initiates between number 1 and number 5, the play sheds its condescending pretensions to coolness and becomes genuine and engaging, with characters we care about, and a satire of theatrical obsession that is as biting as the best of them. The riff on theater is launched after Betty 3 attends her very first play (“Summer’s Midnight Dream” ) and comes away stage struck and determined to mount her own theatrical event; for this, she marshals the other Bettys into participating in a contorted version of Pyramus and Thisbe, which she’d viewed and been impressed with the night before. The assigning of roles and the onset of the rehearsal process provoke the same sort of rivalries and ego insecurities that manifest with such hilarity in Shakespeare’s original play-within-a-play and in countless productions since.
One big reason the production succeeds are the performances. Mirto, off-putting in a strident opening monologue that defines her as a clueless white matron, recovers to become three dimensionally empathetic later on. Rackley, as the impossibly naïve Betty 2, rescues the role from developing into a cloying cliché. Anzoategui and Leigh both artfully exploit the foibles of their characters, with Leigh’s open and honest Betty 5 emerging as especially endearing. Ultimately, however. it is Lamadrid as the loose-lipped Betty 3 who, bitten by the theater bug, keeps the laughs coming and steals the show.
One production element that puzzles is Francois-Pierre Couture’s scenic design: Its achromatic backdrop stands in sharp contrast to the in-your-face brashness of the material, and adds little ambiance. Hana S. Kim’s projections infuse a flood of color towards the end; one wonders why not before.
The Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; (additional perf. Mon. March 6, 8 p.m.); http://www.bostoncourt.com/the-theatre-at-boston-court Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission