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Collective Rage: A Play In 5 Betties
A Play In 5 Betties; In Essence, A Queer And Occasionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were In Middle School And You Read About Shackleton And How He Explored The Antarctic? Imagine The Antarctic As A Pussy And It's Sort Of Like That

I was worried about vaginas. I was worried about what we think about vaginas, and even more worried that we don't think about them. . . . — Eve Ensler
collective rage
Ana Villafane and Lea De Laria (Photo: Joan Marcus
That quote above is, of course, not by the author whose play Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties, I'm reviewing. But Eve Ensler did indeed blaze a trail for Jen Silverman to write her inventive satire focused on the body part that before Ensler's 1999 The Vagina Monologues dared no speak its name.

As the two first characters we meet in Silverman's play state, whether you call it vagina or pussy, it's still not considered an appropriate topic to discuss at a dinner party. But the next character to show up, disagrees— and acts on it.

Though Ensler imbued the groundbreaking Vagina Monologues and numerous subsequent solo shows (most recently In the Body of the World) with plenty of humor and theatricality, her pieces fall within the genre of documentaries. Silverman takes a more plot-centric approach. However, as a proponent of broader, more realistic recognition non-traditional female gender identity and relationships she has plenty of issues: Last year's The Moors was a genre bashing modern gothic; in the just reviewed Williamstown Theatre Festival world premiere of Dangerous House she points her dramatic finger at the governmental and social hypocrisy in the land of the late freedom fighter Nelson Mandela.

betty boop
Collective Rage leaves very few stones of Silverman's chosen focus unturned. As The Moors took its inspiration from characters in Jane Eyre, so in this absurdist 19-scene romp five characters share the same name. That name links them to the jazz age's first female animated cartoon sex symbol, Betty Boop, who was reputed to have more heart than brains.

Having each of these Betties represent a different aspect of the gender identity spectrum and connect through a joint effort of putting on on a play does provide an opportunity for humor. Since each is a loopy Betty Boop spin-off, identified strictly by a number, so just having them address each other by their shared name tends to set the laugh meter in motion. What's more, with each Betty being desperately unhappy, lonely and confused about how to spend the rest of her life, their personal interactions also enable their creator to use them to give her issues an airing — and to turn this decidedly non-traditional work into her own version of a romantic comedy.

Silverman, is not an Eve Ensler style soloist inhabiting all the women whose stories she tells. Instead she relies on the actors on stage for her humor and more serious thematic concerns to work. Fortunately, the women portraying the Betties in various monologues, pas-de-deux and ensemble scenes are just fine.

Betty 1 (Dana Delany) is an Upper East Side matron whose "career" is being married to a rich man. His infidelity exacerbates feelings of rage and discontent.

Betty 2 (Adina Verson) is not only in a problematic marriage like Betty 1. She is even more miserable about not having any friends than her sexless marital situation.

Betty 3 (Ana Villafane) is a bi-sexual who is desperate for a more meaningful job than working a counter at Sephora's. She longs for something to transform her from a nobody to a somebody.

Betty 4 (Lea DeLaria) is a butch lesbian who likes to fix her truck. She secretly yearns to be more than a friend to Betty 3.

Betty 5 (Chaunte Wayans) is genderqueer. As she puts it, "gender-non-conforming masculine-presenting female-bodied individual. But I'm comfortable with female pronouns". She's also the only Betty with a career since she owns a boxing gym. Both she and Betty 1, who comes to the gym to learn how to box out her rage against her unfaithful husband, come from different worlds but share a history of stints in rehab for substance abuse.

The showiest and most plot-propelling role belongs to Ana Villafane, who made such an impressive debut as Gloria Estefan in On Your Feet . The scenes that come closest to achieving the aimed for satirical humor are between her Betty 3 and Lea Delaria (currently best known for Orange is the New Black at Netflix, but an early gender-basher in a 1999 Broadway revival of On the Town .

Those scenes between Betty 3 and 4 are the outcome of the event (Betty 3's date with a prosperous, theater going woman) that triggered #3's self-actualizing plan to devise her own production based on the subplot in A Midsummer Night's Dream. To give just one example, Betty 3 says that the play she saw on her date was not in Spanish but "in kind of an English?" which prompts Betty 4 to exclaim "You're gonna pay eighty-nine bucks go someplace where you don't understand what they're saying? That's stupid. I can go to Queens for free in my truck."

Adina Verson's Betty 2 actually undergoes the biggest transition in terms of getting in touch with that heretofore unexplored part of her anatomy. But while she has some strong moments, I found the scene during which she turns her hand into a puppet confidant too drawn out and somewhat tedious— not nearly as effective as the ingenious use of a hand puppet in Hand to God, a quirky little play that also had a run with MCC at the Lortel Theater.

Mike Donahue brings the five actors together for Betty 3's devised "thea-tah" piece at a brisk pace that's more more lively and entertaining than what he achieved with The Moors. But there's no avoiding that the material pushes too hard on the aren't-we-clever and shock appeal buttons. For one thing, there's the over use of the once taboo pussy terminology. There's also the way the full title begs for attention. It's probably the longest since Arthur Kopit named his first play Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad: A Pseudoclassical Tragifarce in a Bastard French Tradition.

For all the cleverness and fine performances, the real star here is the design by Dane Laffrey. It starts out deceptively simple but keeps surprising us with props dropped down from the squares in the bright yellow ceiling. This box-like ceiling also accommodates Caite Hevner's projected titles to introduce each scene.

Ultimately, the playwright's director's note in her script best explains my own failure to fully buy into what she hopes to accomplish: "Do not eschew the human, raw, and sad in favor of the funny — even if you think the text is giving permission." She adds that that the humor works best when we genuinely care about all five women— and when they learn to genuinely care about each other."

This bonding does happen for the Betties. However, Silverman's portraying them as wildly over-the-top good-hearted but brainless Betty Boops made it hard for me to care about them or find their doings consistently hilarious.

I should add that there were a surprising number of men at the performance I attended and many, like the man sitting next to me, laughed a lot more than I did. That said, it's a safe bet that neither he or any of the men you're likely to see at a performance of Collective Rage are Donald Trump supporters.

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Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties
In Essence, A Queer And Occasionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were In Middle School And You Read About Shackleton And How He Explored The Antarctic? Imagine The Antarctic As A Pussy And It's Sort Of Like That.
Playwright: Jen Silverman
Directed by Mike Donahue
Cast:Dana Delany (Betty 1), Adina Verson (Betty 2),Ana Villafane (Betty 3), Lea DeLaria (Betty 4), Chaunte Wayans (Betty 5)
Sets: Dane Lafferty
Costumes: Dede Ayite
Lighting: Jen Schriever
Sound and original compositions: Palmer Hefferan Projections: Cate Hevner
Production Manager: Steve Rosenberg
Stage Manager: Lori Ann Zepp
Running Time: Approx. 90 minutes, no intermission
MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theater on Christopher Street
Tue-Wed 7, Thu-Fri 8,Sat 2+8, Sun 3.
From 8/16/18; opening 9/12/18; closing 10/07/18.

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