The Vortex, through Nov. 18
Running Time: 1 hr, 40 min
When it comes to their bodies and their control over them, women have historically gotten, pardon the expression, screwed. Throughout the ages, they've been told by men, and even other women, when they can have sex and with whom (only after they're married, only with their husband, and only when he wants to); they've been denied sexual gratification (because women aren't supposed to enjoy sex); they've been ostracized as whores and deviants when they do enjoy sex, do it more than is "normal," or do it with the "wrong" people (e.g., women); they've been subjected to medical and psychological treatment for "abnormal" sexual desires and behavior; and when pregnancy results from sexual activity, even in cases of rape, they've been told what they can and cannot do about it.
The last century has seen some relief from this repressive domination over women, but the bad old days are right around the corner in Ring Rip Rent, this new play by Martha Lynn Coon, an MFA playwriting candidate at UT-Austin. Set some five years from today, the play takes us inside an institutional facility where women who have violated society's sexual mores are confined, classified, and treated. The inmates of Ward 6, whose transgressions include promiscuity, homosexual tendencies, use of birth control, and terminated pregnancies, have been ranked by their "threat" level and consigned to shuffling around in flesh-obscuring, floor-length white robes and pledging allegiance to normality under the glare of harsh fluorescent bulbs.
These particular outlaws have been given a shot at freedom, though: All they have to do is prove they've been rehabilitated through some performance of their own making. The foursome Frankie, Erma, Vincent, and Praline seem ill-equipped for this kind of creative task, given the way they argue over how to start and how to perform, but with the alternative being indefinite incarceration in this mental-hospital-cum-convent, they give it a shot, and the play begins to alternate scenes of the women interacting with one another as themselves and scenes of them in performance, illustrating what appear to be their own experiences filtered through historical attitudes and reactions to female sexuality in the style of vaudeville routines and circus acts.
In the efforts of these institutionalized outcasts you may hear echoes of Marat/Sade or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the latter especially when the company is joined by Railroad Annie, a free spirit who, McMurphy-like, brings new life to this institutional dead zone but ultimately must be sacrificed to its authoritarian masters. As such, it's pretty easy to see where the story is headed. But when we get to the end of this Vortex Repertory Company production, the finale doesn't make up in dramatic punch what it lacks in surprise. That may be because we don't learn quite enough about the women of Ward 6 or their dystopian world to be emotionally invested in their fate. Then again, maybe we aren't supposed to be emotionally invested in these women; maybe the point of these performance breaks is to provide some of that old Brechtian distance, so we think more than feel about the plight of these women.
Certainly, those performances and a flavor of the circus are at the heart of the production. Ann Marie Gordon's set features an outsized medical gauge, needles, and gear that look like giant props from a clown's hospital sketch. Director (and Chronicle Arts writer) Heather Barfield Cole stages the breaks with a crisp stylization and theatrical flair. And when the actors hurl themselves into such bits with vaudevillian abandon, as when Amie Elyn's Erma visits a shrink, played by Elizabeth Doss with a deliciously phony beard and thick Cher-man ach-cent, the production strikes sparks. The two skillfully evoke burlesque character types and deftly advance the scene from innuendo to flirtation to patient and doctor getting it on, at which point Doss and Elyn engage in simulated copulation, in a variety of positions, all at breakneck speed, all over the stage. It's in moments like this broad, physical, funny that the play cracks open and shoots us to a visceral sense of its subject. The cast doesn't hit that level at every chance Coon gives them, so such moments are only scattered throughout the production. But when they happen, Ring Rip Rent shifts from intriguing cautionary tale to potent warning that the mistreatment women thought they'd gotten past could be in their future.
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