Betty Boop Stars in a Shock Comedy About Pussy and Gender

Karen Anzoategui, left, Elyse Mirto, Courtney Rackley, Tracey A. Leigh and Anna Lamadrid in Jen Silverman's Collective Rage: A Play in 5 BoopsEXPAND
Karen Anzoategui, left, Elyse Mirto, Courtney Rackley, Tracey A. Leigh and Anna Lamadrid in Jen Silverman's Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Boops
Ed Krieger

The free spirit of animator Max Fleischer’s salacious, pre-Code animated flapper, Betty Boop, literally hovers over Jen Silverman’s wisecracking if somewhat undercooked 2016 gender comedy, which is making its West Coast debut at Pasadena’s Boston Court.

Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Boops features Betty Boop’s iconic, black-and-white image shimmying across the walls of François-Pierre Couture’s severe, bare-brick set in projection designer Hana S. Kim’s preshow collage of Boop footage. And she is eponymously echoed in the names of Silverman’s five broadly caricatured contemporary New York women, each called Betty Boop. Mostly, as a program note points out, she is present in the characters’ fixation on that part of the cartoon Betty’s anatomy that Fleischer famously euphemized as her “Boop-oop-a-doop.” Or, as the more plain-speaking of the play’s Bettys put it explicitly and incessantly throughout the evening, “pussy.”

Though that makes Collective Rage very much a play about pussy, its whimsically explanatory subtitle suggests that Silverman’s in-your-face assault is reaching for something more fundamental about gender than simple shock comedy (which is soon exhausted) or Eve Ensler–grade demystification: In Essence a Queer & Occasionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were in Middle School and You Read About Shackleton & How He Explored the Arctic?; Imagine the Arctic as a Pussy & It’s Sort of Like That.

The Shackleton of Collective Rage proves to be Betty Boop 3 (Anna Lamadrid), a streetwise, malaprop-prone Hispanic Sephora clerk who proceeds to upend the existences of two bourgeois, sexually repressed Upper East Side Bettys, Betty 1 (Elyse Mirto) and Betty 2 (Courtney Rackley), not only by talking openly about pussy and the first time she had sex with a woman but by leading the Bettys in an Our Bodies, Ourselves–vintage expedition of gynecological self-examination with the help of three hand mirrors.

The evening takes a metatheatrical turn when Betty 3 attends a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream and abruptly decides to mount Shakespeare's Rude Mechanicals’ “Pyramus and Thisbe” travesty in an equally risible devised staging, casting all the Bettys — including her lonely but love-struck admirer Betty 4 (Karen Anzoategui) and the African-American ex-con Betty 5 (Tracey A. Leigh), a boxing trainer who matter-of-factly self-identifies as a “gender-nonconforming male type.”

But if Silverman’s overly schematized script works on paper, powering a 90-minute comedy with characters that exist as little more than intellectual gender constructs carries a stiff price. Despite lovely performances, particularly by the marvelous Leigh and Anzoategui, and a fluid staging by Lindsay Allbaugh, Silverman’s mix of rather hoary cultural clichés and low comedy stalls just at the moment it should be catching fire.

Though romance eventually blossoms, first between Bettys 1 and 5, then between Bettys 3 and 4, as each of the five women reconciles her own sense of pussy as expressions of art, identity, loneliness, power or love, the level of conviction never rises above that of a cartoon. Rather than delivering the sense of liberation or emotional authenticity the play's trajectory seems to demand, the Bettys’ pussy-powered self-reinventions seem to merely substitute one kind of caricatured gender identity for another. That may be theoretically sound, but it's dramatically deadly.

The Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave, Pasadena; through March 19. (626) 683-6883, bostoncourt.com.


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