With celebs like Beyoncé, Emma Watson, Miley Cyrus, and Taylor Swift proudly flying their feminist flags, feminism is having a moment — however superficial. Celebrity feminism often feels more like pandering and marketing, pronouncing trendy refrains and empowerment that have little meaning.
Taking a deeper look at the movement is Gina Gionfriddo’s very funny Rapture, Blister, Burn. The play presents a debate about the future of feminism and the myth of happily ever after, and provides a more nuanced examination of the tired binary of career versus motherhood. While the story strains credibility, the Rep production boasts a fine cast and top-notch technical elements under Sam Woodhouse’s direction.
When hotshot academic and author Catherine returns to her small New England hometown to care for her mother, old passions and bitterness arise when she confronts her ex-boyfriend, now married to her ex-roommate. Now in their 40s, the three friends from grad school are vaguely unhappy with their lives.
Catherine (Paige Lindsey White) has an enviable career in women’s studies. The possibility of losing her mother strikes Catherine with regrets and doubts about postponing family life.
Turns out a similar midlife envy also afflicts Gwen (Sandy Campbell, humorously uptight), who covets Catherine’s career and feels disappointed by her ambitionless, pot-smoking, porn-addicted husband Don (Shawn Law, exuding slacker charm). A recovering alcoholic who’s replaced drinking with awkward oversharing, Gwen dropped out of grad school and became a stay-at-home mother of two children. Don spends his unchallenging days as dean of a third-rate college, all the while “withering in the black, sunless hell” of Gwen’s disapproval.
It doesn’t take much for Don and Catherine to reignite their relationship as lovers.
Through many improbable manipulations and contrivances, Catherine and Gwen agree to switch places — à la a body-swap movie from the ’80s. Dopey but likable Don seems to go along for the ride, and it’s not entirely clear what Catherine sees in him, aside from a shared indulgence in alcohol and bad behavior.
While smart humor and feminist discourse carry the play, it’s difficult to get past the many unrealistic plot setups.
Another somewhat clunky conceit is the summer course Catherine agrees to teach, which allows the playwright to hold forth on the fallout and future of feminism. The class has just two students: Gwen and 21-year-old Avery (Jennifer Paredes), an abrasive, sexually free college student trying to pitch a reality-TV show. Rounding out the multigenerational perspectives is Catherine’s mother Alice (Susan Denaker, funny and endearing), who grew up during the second wave of feminism but largely ignored it.
Between rounds of martinis, the women discuss the history of American feminism and contemporary issues such as pornography, slut-shaming, and the representation of women in horror films.
While the emotional pitch feels off, the cast hits all the right notes with the humor in Gionfriddo’s wordy, at times dense script.
Rapture doesn’t exactly break new ground, and it provides a narrow view on feminism — that of white, upper-middle-class straight women. And despite the women-centric focus, the play only kind of passes the Bechdel text, since the women keep returning to the topic of the men in their lives even as they discuss big ideas. Still, as a primer on feminism and a jumping off point to debate where the movement is going — and for the laughs that come fast and hard — the Rep’s production is worth watching.
It’s also the kind of play Tay Tay and Miley should see.
Playing through May 15