The first hint that audiences might want to fasten their seat belts for Sheila Callaghan’s clever and outrageously transgressive burlesque comes with its provocative title: That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play. And Son of Semele Ensemble's Los Angeles premiere of the scabrous 2009 feminist satire does not disappoint.
In its fast-moving 90 minutes, director Marya Mazor’s high-octane production offers a dizzying inventory of misogynistic invectives, gun-toting ex-strippers, a graphically grisly onstage murder, female Jell-O wrestling, cross-dressing, necrophilia and even a cameo by Jane Fonda. They’re all part of Callaghan’s politically pointed, hallucinogenic dissection of the psychosexual can of worms that seethe between male desire and the representation of what has been called “the abyss of the feminine.”
The evening opens on Aubree Lynn’s wittily gauche, vaguely 1980s hotel room set as Valerie (Paula Rebelo) and Agnes (Cindy Nguyen), a pair of demented, cleavage-baring and miniskirted sisters (in Lena Sands’ wry costumes), lure unsuspecting Rodney (the fine Tope Oni) from a karaoke party next door. The sisters, who look nothing alike but are from “the same loins,” quickly reveal some decided anger and self-objectification issues (Agnes worships Howard Stern; Valerie likes to be hit) as they coldly dispatch Rodney and document the murder for the blog that chronicles their cross-country killing spree.
The scene abruptly shifts as Jane Fonda (Betsy Moore), dressed in her iconic blue workout leotard, pushes in a TV playing one of her 1980s exercise videos and, as she aerobicizes, delivers a lecture defining the “real woman.” But the question of whether any of the play’s female representations are “real” or are rather fervid figments of a sociopathic imagination is just as quickly raised as the opening scene is replayed almost verbatim, but this time between Rodney, who is revealed to be an Iraq War veteran, and Owen (Will Bradley), an aspiring screenwriter working on a convoluted story about a pair of vengeful ex-stripper thrill killers preying on men at pro-life conventions.
The swap is classic Callaghan and serves as a kind of metaphorical drag act in a black comedy whose very serious purpose is to parody the hegemonic and culturally coercive nature of gender roles. Seesawing between broad caricature and a more chilling naturalism, Callaghan connects the dots of her argument through a series of ever-shifting and telescoping points of view as the play’s crosshairs gradually widen to include gruesome wartime sex atrocities, overripe ’80s metal love songs (Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” and Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night“) and finally a scene from Owen’s over-the-top exploitation movie — which also delivers the titular rape promised by That Pretty Pretty — which is itself unmasked as a thinly veiled and bitter revenge on Agnes, his ex-wife.
The proceedings are all vividly imagined by Mazor in a precision staging that is effectively punctuated by John Zalewski’s sound and Josh Epstein's lights, and is fluidly performed by a flawless ensemble. But the star of the show is Callaghan’s smart text and its escalating absurdities. The play saves its most trenchant irony for its postscript, in which Owen defends his vicious cinematic farrago of sexual violence to the audience by pleading that he’s merely an observer of the human condition regardless of gender. “I’m gender-blind,” he offers incriminatingly.
Son of Semele Ensemble Theatre, 3301 Beverly Blvd., Westlake; through June 19. Sonofsemele.org.