Let’s just get this out of the way. Jen Silverman’s Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops (its full title is Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops; In Essence a Queer and Occasionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were in Middle School and You Read About Shackleton and How He Explored the Antarctic?; Imagine the Antarctic as a Pussy and It’s Sort of Like That), which is being given its world premiere in a delirious production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, is a play about “pussy.” And I’m not necessarily talking about the “cooch-ilar region,” as one character so vividly describes it.
Because in Silverman’s absurd world, words get turned on their head, take on new meaning and can represent both everything and nothing. So when the five characters in the play, all named Betty Boop, talk about “pussy”, and there is a lot of talk about it, we come to understand that they’re talking about many things (identity, love, loneliness, power), and those definitions grow stronger as the play gets stranger and stranger.
As the play begins, we meet each Betty, who are differentiated by number. Betty 1, (a steely Beth Hylton, who was so good as Blanche in last season’s A Streetcar Named Desire at Everyman Theatre) the rich one in a loveless marriage, is filled with rage because she feels helpless to do anything as she recounts the daily news, with one story more awful than the next.
Betty 2, (Dorea Schmidt, who is making a mesmerizing Woolly debut) the shy conservative one who has no friends, is filled with rage because she is so lonely, her only reliable companion being a hand puppet. Literally, it’s her hand.
Betty 3, (Broadway vet, Nastacia Diaz, also in her Woolly debut), the street-smart bisexual one whose life is transformed when she sees a production of Summer’s Midnight Dream, at least that’s how she remembers the title, is filled with rage because she wants to be taken seriously as an actress (and director, and writer, and casting director) and not as a sex object.
Betty 4, (Kate Rigg) the lesbian follower, who is filled with rage because no one values friendship as much she does. And Betty 5 (Felicia Curry), the tough one just released from prison, who is filled with rage because she just doesn’t seem comfortable in her own skin.
Each woman is proverbially trapped, by both her own doing and by the confines of a patriarchal society. But when they meet each other and decide to stage that play-within-a-play, you know, Pyramus and Thisbe, from that Summer’s play that Betty 3 saw, all hell breaks loose, so much so that Dane Laffrey’s bright yellow set, displays some visually stunning moments.
Silverman’s play takes, as it’s jumping off point, Max Flesicher’s creation, Betty Boop, and her original characterization, in the early 1930s, as a woman in trouble, who, because of her station, is either meant to be rescued or meant to succumb to the men who sexualize her.
In Collective Rage, the Bettys reject the moniker of traditional damsel and bust those archetypes wide open in order to discover their true selves. It’s heavy stuff, but told with a singular, wholly original voice that evokes Albee, Suzan Lori-Parks, and even the poetic lyricism of Ntozake Shange. And it is very, very funny. Nevertheless, I found parts of it a head-scratcher, particularly the last 15 minutes, when Director Mike Donahue, who has kept a sure hand over the proceedings, lets the piece spin out of control, when it probably needed to be reined in the most.
Special mention needs to be made of Thomas Sower’s sound design and Daniel Kluger’s original music that punctuates, with heavy dance beats, short interludes between the play’s 18+ scenes.
Betty 2 tells us, in song, that she is both bewildered and amazed by a world she finds strange and lonely. And those words mirror my feelings about Collective Rage.
Never in recent memory has such ambitious subject matter been presented with such humor, panache and flair. And glitter. And pussy. Lots of pussy.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.
Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops plays through October 9, 2016 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchased them online.
Note: Although Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops contains strong language, there is no nudity.