DF Reviews Rapture, Blister, Burn (Wilma Theater, October 2014)

Rapture Blister Burn Wilma

Campbell O’Hare and Krista Apple-Hodge in Rapture, Blister, Burn (Wilma Theater)

Feminism. Post Feminism. Raunch Feminism. The complex, on-going evolution of the women’s movement – and its effect on living, breathing females – is the subject of Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn. It’s a fun and sometimes exhilarating ride, packed with ideas. Ultimately, though, the script proves more conventional than it initially appears.

Catherine (played by Krista Apple-Hodge), a media-studies professor and semi-celebrity (think Camille Paglia), has returned to the small town where she grew up, to attend to her ailing mother. Once there, she’s also reunited with a pair of graduate school friends, Gwen and Don, now married, with whom Catherine – whose career is in high gear but whose personal life is unfulfilled – shares significant history.

The substance of Gionfriddo’s play takes the form of intergenerational conversations by and about women. Included in the group are Catherine and Gwen – also a brash young student named Avery (charmingly played by Campbell O’Hare in the show’s best performance). Alice, Catherine’s droll mother (the fine Nancy Boykin) sometimes joins in.

Ostensibly, the context is a seminar Catherine is teaching. But it looks more like a book group, where the reading assignment is regularly sublimated to what we might generously call autobiographical narrative.  A lot of this is amusing, and Gionfriddo certainly shows off her sharp intellect.

But the politics are muddled and ambivalent. With iconic, problematic figures like Phyllis Schlafly, Gionfriddo seems to want to both skewer and embrace them. (For me, I wish the play had the kind of bite the real Camille Paglia can bring to the topic – I’m often infuriated by her thinking, but always entertained by her deliberately provocative, sharp prose.)

Rapture marks the Wilma debut of Joanna Settle, a noted director in regional theatre, now also Director of the Ira Brind School of Theatre at UArts. Settle announces herself here in high style, with a visually arresting, sleekly deconstructed production. But it’s less sophisticated than it looks, and is a poor fit for the fundamentally realistic play. There’s little sense of conversation and nuance. Instead, the talented actors (also including Maia DeSanti and Harry Smith) strike poses, and announce their lines like so much dogma.

A more straightforward approach would work better, but there are weaknesses in Rapture that no director can resolve. Put it this way: For all the knowing badinage about feminist theory, Internet porn, Rousseau, etc., by the second act, the play has turned into Freaky Friday. (Or, in this case, maybe Freaky Nancy Friday.)

Through November 2, Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., (215) 546-7824. http://www.wilmatheater.org

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