A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing two-time Pulitzer Prize in Drama finalist Gina Gionfriddo. Her most recent work, Rapture, Blister, Burn has been hailed as a great feminist play. Much of our conversation revolved around where the idea for the show came from and what message she was trying to convey. Without having seen the play, I got the sense from speaking with Gionfriddo that this play was about shifting ideologies -- not just how the goals of the feminist movement have evolved over the past few decades to meet the changing needs of women in our culture, but also how a woman's understanding of and need for feminism can shift throughout her individual lifespan. (Please note: I use the term "women" here in reference to the female characters in the play. Feminism is beneficial to all people, regardless of gender.)
Rapture, Blister, Burn recently opened at Theatre Artist's Studio in Scottsdale. The work itself, and this performance of it, were admittedly underwhelming in some minor regards. The plot was a bit contrived, the characters a little disproportionate to the space. Despite these shortcomings, I walked away from the play unable to stop thinking about the themes and theories discussed therein -- which clearly need to be thought and talked about.
See also: Gina Gionfriddo on Having It All, Pulitzer Prizes, and Rapture, Blister, Burn
There are a things that I am ecstatic to be able to take absolutely for granted: having a career with the potential for upward mobility, occupying one-half of an egalitarian relationship, being able to vote in favor of my vagina. These immense gifts, which I am able to accept so effortlessly as givens, were won by the struggle of millions of individuals -- a fact that I was repeatedly reminded of while watching Rapture, Blister, Burn.
Rapture, Blister, Burn is a love story -- kind of. Once upon a time, the main character, Catherine dated a boy called Don whom she met in graduate school. Don left Catherine for her friend Gwen, Gwen and Don got married and made little babies, Catherine went on to become a successful feminist scholar who studies all sorts of fun things, like Torture and Horror Films and Porn.
Fast forward to the present, where the story begins. Gwen and Catherine are in their 40s. Catherine moves home to care for her ailing mother, Alice. She reconnects with Gwen and Don, who are a homemaker and some sort of low-level Dean at an unnamed university, respectively. Don gets Catherine a job teaching at his college. Gwen is resentful; her husband is an unmotivated pothead who doesn't make enough money, she wishes she had finished her degree and made a better life for herself. Catherine is also resentful; she wishes she had chosen the path of marriage and family and Don. I will try not to spoil much more of the plot than that, but I think you can see where this is headed.
Theatre Artists Studio is a small space. The actors in Rapture, Blister, Burn tended to play to a bigger space than was really necessary. At first the subtle overacting was jarring given the intimacy of the theatre itself, but as the show progressed it was clear that this actually helped to drive the dialogue-heavy story forward with energy and stamina. Still, there were points were a bit more subtlety might have been appropriate.
The real heart of Rapture, Blister, Burn lies in the dialogue. In the play, Catherine teaches a class from her mother's home; Gwen and Avery, the sassy young women who babysits for Gwen's children, are Catherine's only pupils. The most provocative parts of Gionfriddo's story stem from the earnest discourse found in this informal classroom setting; with three generations of women represented, the transitional nature of feminism is brought to light. The audience is treated to a discussion that is part history lesson about the Women's Rights movement and part plot-mover. While I could have cared less about the predictable romantic sub-plot of the story, I appreciated the moments of clarity and ingenuity contained in these scenes.
Catherine's relationship with her mother is particularly moving. Perhaps the most insightful moment in the play occurs when Catherine realizes that part of her sudden desire to create a family stems from fear of losing her mother; she says something to the effect of, "when my mother dies, I'll be really alone for the first time in my life."At first I interpreted this statement as a demonstration of weakness or patheticism on Catherine's behalf. As I thought about it later, I viewed it in a more positive light. A different presentation of this line might have shown the role of the homemaker mother as equally important or supportive as that of a breadwinning husband or father.
I'm not sure I'd laud this play as the grand feminist masterpiece that others have made it out to be; while it certainly explores feminist concepts, it's not earth-shattering, and the romantic plotline was less than empowering for any party involved. But I'm grateful to live in a place and in a time where I can watch a play like this one and write in the public sphere about how I wish it were more progressive.
What Rapture, Blister, Burn has going for it that many other plays simply don't have are four strong female characters who were able to talk -- really talk -- about the experience of being a woman. And that's a pretty huge thing. But those conversations between Gwen, Catherine, Alice, and Avery, were also what left me feeling most unsettled.
Their discourse, and the play as a whole, danced around the concept of "having it all" -- referring to the apparently impossible task of having a successful career, love, and children all at the same time. It's been talked about time and time again, without much in the way of advancement or resolution. I've always hated this phrase, because I feel that the question of whether or not a woman can "have it all" is in itself a manifestation of immense privilege. For many of us, "having it all" might as well be the same as "having anything at all," because working has never been a question of "if."
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I suppose my biggest critique of this play comes not at all from its performance, but rather from its purview. While Rapture, Blister, Burn does address feminist issues, it discusses them only within a white and middle-class context. For a play that has been so widely touted as a progressive work, its viewpoint is really quite narrow.
That being said, the conversations that have been sparked by Theatre Artists Studio's performance of the play have been widespread and provocative. See it for yourself between now and February 1st. General admission tickets are $20; the theatre does offer discounts for seniors, veterans, students, and groups of ten or more.