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3/15/2024        RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN       Pumphouse Players



pgm Rapture.jpg

(Bias Alert: I have worked often with Pumphouse Players and have, in fact, been cast in their April / May production.There may be some bias in the following appreciation.


As a supplemental sloth alert, much of this may have been self-plagiarized from my comments on Out-of-Box Theatre’s 2016 Production of this piece. )


As a concept, it's sometimes difficult for a playwright to resist.  Contrive a way to get a group of characters with (calculatedly) disparate points of view together in one room and have them air their arguments.  What's difficult is making it work, making it come across as real people with passionate opinions hashing out their (usually) entrenched points-of-view,  The trap is filling the mouths of characters "on the wrong side" with "straw man" arguments, "stacking the deck," as it were, with the playwright’s own biases.


Horizon Theatre's 2016 production of City of Conversation is an example of "Seminar-Lit" done right -- all sides are given equal weight and respect, and the characters themselves come alive, seemingly free of playwright-manipulation. Gina Gionfriddo's Rapture, Blister, Burn, unfortunately, falls into another category.  The playwright's hand is clearly visible in the contrived set-up, and a few too many times, she elbows her characters aside to put her own opinions into the mouths of people for whom those opinions seem, well, out-of-character.

The "seminar" arguments themselves can be frequently compelling but just as frequently unconvincing.   Throughout this play, I often felt as if I were back in the dorm (or the local watering hole), woozy after an all-nighter, arguing (with good nature) with friends and professors.  To be honest, I enjoy wallowing in scholastic nostalgia, but usually end up resenting not being able to participate myself, feeling every one of the fifty years since my college days.


Catherine Croll is an established writer and academic, justly famous for her feminist tracts against pornography.  She has come home to a small college town after her mother's heart attack.  Unfortunately, it is also the home of Don and Gwen, her old college flame and his wife (who also used to be her roommate).  Catherine is "of a certain age," so is beginning to question her life choices, afraid that once her mother "goes," she will be left alone in the world.  Gwen, of that same "certain" age, is also questioning her choices, regretful that she never completed her own education, resentful of her husband's descent into weed-and-porn-induced complacency and passionless domesticity and academia. 


This could be the set-up for a frothy rom-com, or a bitter family drama.  Ms. Gionfriddo, to her credit, has chosen instead to make it the support pole for a series of "seminars," arguments about pornography, gender roles, and choices.  She gives all the characters opportunities to voice points-of-view, and to relate those arguments to their own lives.  I'm just not convinced their arguments are true to their characters.  Yes, Catherine is longing for family, but is it credible she would spout the words of Phyllis Schlafly to argue as such?  Surely an academic could find a more credible source from "inside" feminism to justify her feelings.  Surely she could look at her own mother's life, who started her own family late in life, as the living embodiment of "having a family when you're ready without regret."  The years since the 2016 production have made the inclusion of the Schlafly quotes and arguments even more problematic.


Speaking of Alice (Catherine's mother), we're given precious little information on why she waited so long to have a daughter -- what was she doing all those years?  And why do her simplistic June Cleaver attitudes strike me as so false coming from someone who was single (and apparently working) during the heyday of Friedan and Steinem?  She even pulls out the old chestnut "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?", a phrase that never fails to drive me a little crazy in its implicit condescension towards men (and what they want from women). (*)


And, yes, I found the entire set up and structure simply creaking with contrivance -- the coincidence of Alice living in the same town as Gwen and Don, an academic of Catherine's stature actually seeking to work at a "third-rate Liberal Arts school," Gwen's set-up-another-argument firing of a baby-sitter only for coming to work with a black eye (seriously -- what Mom goes through life with those kind of blinders?), a seminar of only two students who just happen to be Gwen and the Baby-Sitter (Avery), the seminar held in Catherine's living-room so Alice can poke into the conversation,  the end-of-play reversal of every argument Catherine has made throughout, and on and on and on.  Yes, each of these elements can be rationalized, can chip away at that pesky "willing suspension of disbelief."  Even here, they are (more or less) made credible by the performances, all of which bring a verisimilitude of conviction, which I wished the script shared. But, when looked at in retrospect, they bring an accumulated sense of WTF that does the play no favors.


And Ms. Gionfriddo’s frequent descriptions of Catherine as “beautiful” and “hot” seriously undercuts her premise of women too-often being reduced to nothing more than their appeal to men (not to mention running the risk of “losing” anyone in the audience who does not find the character particularly appealing).


Don't get me wrong -- even with all my quibbles, this is still a compelling and enjoyable play, filled to the brim with motifs and themes -- cross-generational paradigm shifts, sacrifices that may (or may not) be required for certain life choices, pornography and its descent from something exotic and forbidden to something available anytime anyplace to anybody, the costs of falling into and out of love (especially when other people – often children -- are involved), and the role current events play in popular media (Cold war / Sci-Fi Horror, Viet Nam / Disaster movies, The Rise of Feminism / Slasher Movies, and – a particularly weak connection – 9/11 / “Torture Horror”),


From an acting standpoint, this production is convincing.   Laurel Ann Lowe brings to Catherine a sincerity and passion (not to mention a love of teaching) that truly sparkle.  Ashley Hartwig is a compellingly skeptical Avery and believably makes arguments I’m not convinced her character has the academic background to make (her final rebuttal of many of Catherine’s theses is much more convincing than anything the older woman has posited throughout the piece).  Phil Oberholtzer is a likeable Don, but again, I’m not convinced such an ambitionless stoner would ever attain the position of authority he holds.  (**)  Karen Ruetz is a treat as Alice and makes her love of martinis singularly compelling.  Courtney Jeromin’s Gwen has a high-pitched voice that can occasionally lose the sense of her lines, but she creates a character that often rises above the playwright’s contrived construct.


Technically, the show uses the small Pumphouse space well – yes, there are frequent transitions that require walls to be carried on or off stage, but the crew performs them smoothly and as rapidly as can be expected.  I wish the lighting plot would have attempted to differentiate more the indoor and outdoor scenes, and the focus-on-character moments could have been timed a little more subtly, but overall, there was nothing that jarred or undercut the flow of the plot or my engagement with the characters.


Gina Gionfriddo has proven herself a brilliant writer.  I really enjoyed productions of Becky Shaw and After Ashley.  Here, her talent is evident.  Her dialogue is evocative of character and place and time, and her characters are eminently likeable (even when they're being profoundly unlikeable).  Maybe the "contrivances" I saw are more invisible to most of the rest of the audience, who, admittedly, were quite enthusiastic in their response.  So, you REALLY should take my quibbles with a grain of salt.


In any case, this is a credible production of a group of characters passionately discussing important "ideas," making me nostalgic for my long-ago college seminars, and ultimately proving that what we long for  is not necessary what we really want (or need).


            --  Brad Rudy  (  #RaptureBlisterBurn  #PumphousePlayers



*  The proper response to that question SHOULD be "Because the milk is the least of what I want from the cow (no offense, Dear)."


**  Y'know, I can't help thinking this character is what Albee's George (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) would become if Martha had succeeded in pushing him into an administrative, non-teaching position.

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