Playwright: Gina Gionfriddo
Company: Springs Ensemble Theatre (SET)
Venue: Springs Ensemble Theatre, 1903 E. Cache La Poudre Street, Colorado Springs.
Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission).
Date of Performance: Thursday, May 25, 2017.
Rapture, Blister, Burn is a feminist history lesson at its core, but that’s just the starting point for playwright Gina Gionfriddo. The script begins as a thoughtful analysis of the women’s movement, but evolves into a criticism of both feminism and academia.
A fair portion of the first act plays out like a college sociology course on feminism. Catherine has only two students: Avery and Gwen. The academic scenes (complete with a PowerPoint presentation) run the risk of turning into boring lectures. Instead, her script is uncommonly witty; the classes feature clever, intelligent conversation about very important ideas. Covering topics including slasher films, pornography, and philosophy (from Betty Friedan to Phyllis Schlafly to Dr. Phil), Catherine challenges her students (and the audience) to consider women’s life options. The central question: Is it more important to have a successful, rewarding career or to raise a family in a loving home?
To make her point, Gionfriddo introduces the “literal and latent” ambiguity of lost opportunities. Gwen finds value in her role as a stay at home mother who wonders what career opportunities she has squandered. Catherine is a single, childless and financially successful writer/lecturer who still longs for a male partner. So they swap Don, giving Catherine the partner she seeks and giving Gwen her lost career opportunities. (This is an interesting twist; the only male character is reduced to chattel.)
If you think this is a doomed plot twist, you are correct. It does not go well.
I’ve probably already given away too much here, but that’s because there’s a LOT going on in Rapture, Blister, Burn. It’s a heavy lift of ideas, made entertaining by Gionfriddo’s witty dialog and this ensemble’s ability to punch up the comedy on demand. That’s right. This is a drama and a comedy, or if you prefer, a “dramedy.” Gionfriddo’s weighty philosophical themes are tempered by poking fun at those same ideas along the way.
Gionfriddo’s story is told by her ensemble characters, all of whom deliver sparkling performances at Springs Ensemble. Don (Matt Radcliffe) is a pot smoking, beer drinking slacker who has risen to his dream job as the Dean of Discipline at a small college. His wife Gwen (Kara Carroll) is a college dropout, reformed drinker, and mother who regrets her life choices. Catherine (Holly Haverkorn) is a successful author, professor, and feminist whose former lover (Don) became Gwen’s husband. Avery (Haley King) is a college student, babysitter, and full time free spirit. Catherine’s mother, Alice (Karen Anderson), is a mischievous but charming mom whose wisdom comes not from books but from 70 years of life experience.
This is a strong ensemble; the performers feed off each other’s energy as they tackle profound philosophical topics and dreary daily details of family life. Haley King is the young, immature but whip smart student Avery. King gets some of the best zingers in the script as she discounts and dismisses the hypocrisy of her elders. Karen Anderson (Catherine’s mother) mixes her 1950s morals (she’s repelled by the pornography discussion) with her shameless endorsement of stealing another woman’s husband.
The stars of this SET production are Holly Haverkorn and Kara Carroll as the yin and yang of feminism. Both stars shine brightly on the SET stage, delivering strong, credible and compelling performances. Haverkorn’s Catherine is intelligent and successful, but also insecure, delicate, and conflicted. She is especially poignant in the second act, as Don breaks up with her. Carroll’s frustration with Don is palpable; she oozes an understated anger with her emotionally absent husband.
|Matt Radcliffe, Holly Haverkorn.|
If there’s any flaw in this story, it’s Don, the only male character. He’s a hapless, porn addicted boozing slacker. Matt Radcliffe is unapologetic and marvelous in the role, but Don is a pathetic representative of his gender. Radcliffe takes one for the team here, making the female characters look sharper, smarter, and more appealing in comparison. He slouches and charms his way through his role, creating a lovable but pathetic foil for the women of Rapture, Blister, Burn.
Director Joye Cook-Levy seats the audience on three sides of the room, bringing patrons so close to the stage that one almost feels part of the philosophical discourse. She uses a range of sound levels for actor’s lines, from very loud to very soft, and even the softest spoken lines are clearly audible. Gionfriddo’s script calls for a fair amount of onstage alcohol; Cook-Levy’s attention to detail includes craft beer bottles and a twist of citrus in the martinis. There's no question that Cook-Levy knows how to tell a complicated story about complicated relationships, and she hits the mark again with Rapture, Blister, Burn.
Kitty Robbins sound design makes full use of the SET surround system, bringing the ambient sounds to life. Jack Salesses has put together an impressive and detailed set that includes children’s shoes/boots outside the exterior door. It’s a great touch; we know there are children in the family but they never appear on stage. The shoes make the kids real even though unseen.
Gionfriddo takes some shots here at the pompous and self-centered academic versions of feminism. The discussions are at once stimulating, predictable and impractical. No problems are solved by a discussion of torture porn. For Gionfriddo, women are not defined by academics or philosophers, but by exercising the freedoms they have won in long battles with sexist institutions. It’s the successful career women and the devoted mothers who are on the front lines of feminism.
The playwright's ultimate point is that differing views of feminism are more complementary than contradictory. For Gionfriddo, even the anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly inadvertently supported women making their own decisions; she just believed motherhood is the only rational decision.
In Gionfriddo’s ultimate irony, Karen Anderson’s mature, matronly, and mischievous character delivers a shocking toast for Gwen and Avery:
To Phyllis Schlafly:
She said you girls would pay for your independence and your whoring. She said men wouldn't stay with you and she was right.
The surprising tribute to Shlafly is the climax of Rapture, Blister, Burn. It’s a fitting climax indeed. Whether you’re Phyllis Schlafly or Jane Doe, you’re free to live the life you choose. Even bad decisions demonstrate that you have the right as a woman to determine your own destiny.
|L-R: Haley King (Avery), Kara Carroll (Gwen), Matt Radcliffe (Don),|
Holly Haverkorn (Catherine) and Karen Anderson (Alice).
Despite the playwright’s embrace of Phyllis Schlafly’s least offensive position, there is little question that she was a vocal and incessant enemy of equality for women.
If you’re wondering about the title of this play, here’s some information. The inspiration comes from a song lyric. I’m not familiar with the band “Hole” or their song “Use Once and Destroy.” I have to get out more.
Rapture, Blister, Burn is suitable for mature teens and adults.
Springs Ensemble is mixing a special cocktail for Rapture, Blister, Burn. It’s called “Summer Rapture.” It’s a delicious mix of vodka, grenadine and a few other ingredients. They’re not serving it premixed from a pitcher, but hand made before your very eyes. Donations gladly accepted. It’s available before the show and during intermission.
This show closes on June 4, 2017.
Photo Credit: Springs Ensemble Theatre, John Zincone
Executive Producer: Holly Haverkorn
Producers: Jenny Maloney & Emory John Collinson
Director: Joye Cook-Levy
Scenic Design (Build Coordinator): Jack Salesses
Scenic Painting: Marie Verdu, Jodi Papproth
Lighting Design: Sean Verdu
Sound Design: Kitty Robbins
Dramaturg: Crystal Carter
Stage Manager: Gabriel Espinoza-Lira
Costume Design: Sarah S. Shaver
Light Board: Angelina Gallagher
Sound Board: Katarina Ivancik
Props: Micah Spiers
Catherin Croll: Holly Haverkorn
Alice Croll: Karen Anderson
Avery Willard: Haley King
Gwen Harper: Kara Carroll
Don Harper: Matt Radcliffe