If you are a woman who chooses a career over having kids, you will never find a man who wants you, even when you lower your standards so much that you are “ready and willing to embrace mediocrity and ambivalence.”
That’s what Catherine (played by senior Sam Auch), the protagonist, tells us in this quote from “Rapture, Blister, Burn” (written by Gina Gionfriddo, 2012). The play opened in Harbach Theatre on May 13 and was directed by Assistant Professor of Theatre Jeff Grace, and was advertised as a feminist play. However, there was little besides preachy book discussions and the high proportion of female characters that reinforced this idea. Perhaps it was a bad idea to produce a play at Knox with a hypocritical, sad, lonely academic for a protagonist, with an artificial and sugar-coated ending and with an inconsistently supportive mother. Think about where some Knox students, including myself, are going to be in 20 years.
Without the intention of scaring viewers “straight” (get a family before it’s too late) or creating a satire of contemporary feminist thought, I don’t see why this play was showing me an elaborate nightmare of the “double bind,” illustrated by Avery’s (played by senior Missy Preston) cynical question: “So is the message that women are fucked either way? You either have a career and you wind up lonely and sad, or you have a family and you wind up lonely and sad?” Rapture’s answer was a resounding yes.
To call this a feminist play would be a tremendous oversight, though perhaps an easy mistake to make for those who are unfamiliar with contemporary feminist thought. While there were three female characters with more lines than the one male character, it is much more important to note that the show spends more time discussing anti-feminist thought, discouraging women who have sex and those who choose their careers over families, and provides no solutions to the problems presented to the women.
While the production was absolutely phenomenal, the set, costumes and acting could not distract me enough.
The technical aspects do not and cannot stand alone; and within the context of such a play, I was disappointed that some of the strongest acting and design concepts I’ve seen at Knox were eventually overshadowed by the poorly presented feminist discussion present in the script.
One potential capacity of theatre, which Grace acknowledges and embraces, is the ability to ask difficult questions without having to answer them onstage. I’m as big a fan of open-ended productions as the next deep thinker, but my problems go far beyond this. There is not a single character that stays consistent; there is not a single character that ends up happy with their choices and happy without a partner; and the feminist discussions were derailed and discounted by the more vocal characters throughout the play.
Avery, who is supposed to represent our generation as a 21-year-old, is discounted every time she says what she believes. Catherine, who built her career on modern feminism, doesn’t uphold her own standards in her personal life, in the place where feminism matters most—her interactions with men. She says she wouldn’t judge Don for watching sadist porn (which she wrote a book condemning), she simply changes the subject when he uses “slut” (though she corrects Avery when she uses the word), and doesn’t even respond to his criticisms of her work and her theory. How is this believable?
The irresponsible, couch potato male character Don (played by sophomore Ian Tully) continues to represent the perpetuation of the patriarchy. He asks of Catherine at a crucial moment, “Is that [rejecting my advances] true, or is that just a monologue you tell yourself so this isn’t your fault?” In this quote, he takes away Catherine’s agency while ignoring his own responsibility to his wife: deciding to cheat with Catherine, he ignores her requests to stop while calling them excuses.
Throughout the play, there are several references to Don’s (representing many men) shortcomings. Alice suggests that Don would never have become so stagnant and lazy if he had stayed with Catherine; all female characters later suggest “shrinking and swooning” to Don’s maleness to shame him into taking care of Catherine, and yet, the outstanding sentiment is, in the words of Catherine, “Maybe men just aren’t hard-wired to follow women.” Where does that fit in with the rest of the show?
These inconsistencies exemplify the freedom afforded to men through patriarchal ideas. There are often few expectations of men to be contributing citizens, yet they retain power in the home and in society. On th other hand, women have to work much harder to be acknowledged for their social contributions, and are still often judged on their femininity or “female successes,” not skill or accomplishments, an insult that even Gionfriddo uses against Catherine.
“Who wants to buy the cow if you can get your milk for free?” said the oldest character, Alice (played by senior Alexia Vasilopoulos), of women who have sex before marriage. This is only one of several things she says to shame her sexually active daughter, even after encouraging her to chase after a married man. Alice’s involvement in the show, obviously an attempt to include the opinions of several generations of women, fails at creating a sensical, consistent character, much less an effective representative of women in her age group. She obviously loves her daughter, but can’t decide if she wants her to stay single or manipulate a man into staying with her. Finally, her last line is, “Shlafly was right… But you’re free, and I think that’s great.” She never before valued freedom from men, especially for her daughter, and the line itself contains a contradiction. What are we supposed to hear from this?
In the end, the married couple Gwen (played by post-bacc Rose Dolezal) and Don get back together, the protagonist’s mother is healthy, and the two remaining characters run away to New York to find happy, fulfilling lives. Sitcom comparisons and all, this is the most artificial ending I’ve ever seen.
For most of my analysis, I disregard the last five-or-so minutes of the show because it seemed like a massive afterthought. An afterthought that, even if it were to be true, creates an “out” for exclusively upper-middle-class women, unafraid to live alone because of their race and class privilege. How is this supposed to be encouraging, or at all universal? Catherine can run away from her problems because she has the money. How many women can say the same?
An inclusive feminist production would have more to say about the lives and problems of women than those affecting exclusively white, middle and upper-class women, and their solutions of spending money when their emotional unfulfillment gets to be too much to handle. We must also remember that Don and Gwen return to an unhappy marriage, and there is nothing to suggest that they have anything in common except a feeling of missing each other. Their problems mentioned an hour earlier have certainly not disappeared.
Anyone who walked away from the show thinking they got an “education in feminism” would be frightfully mistaken.
Producing this play at Knox College is saying that feminism, and theatre, is only for white, middle and upper-class people. This will break down efforts of Knox College students and faculty to create a more hospitable environment for feminism, as most interpretations of this play would be dangerous for the kind of growth we generally encourage at Knox. In a culture that blindly swallows content as often as it does, this play is a dangerous weapon working against what it says to believe in.