Perhaps no recent playwright has better captured the frustrating, exhilarating, and sometimes downright rage-inducing experience of being a woman better than Alice Birch.
The young British playwright, who this year won the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn prize for her play Anatomy of a Suicide, compresses the big problems and little triumphs that females have endured for centuries into a modern revelation titled Revolt. She said. Revolt again. (which was a Blackburn finalist in 2014).
It's a purposefully uncomfortable 75 minutes, in which Birch dissects women's bodies, language, and familial expectations with breathtaking frankness and depth. And Second Thought Theatre wants to see you squirm. The stark white set (for which no design credit is given) puts its audience members on display and doesn't try to hide the five-person cast — composed of four women and one man — while they're changing in between scenes or simply watching them.
Aaron Johansen's arresting lighting and John Flores' relentless (that's a good thing) sound design keep the experience feeling like both a speeding cannonball and a languid party. Much like the punctuation in the play's title, the short bursts of intense design are meant to make an impact before something else can interrupt.
Here, Christie Vela is both director and actor. As the latter, she presents a moment of unexpected poignancy when playing a woman who has decided to lie down in the supermarket (next to the watermelons) and pull up her dress. The costumes, also not attributed to any one person, cleverly suggest nudity with the very undergarments many women wear to bind and reshape their bodies. The performers are makeup-free, save for a few slashes of red lipstick that look more like war paint. It means we can see their expressions intimately, and the cast doesn't hold back on anything.
Jenny Ledel also disrobes, but to challenge sexual perceptions with a befuddled Max Hartman, playing a man who just wants to get some after their date. In fact, Hartman spends most of his time onstage purposefully bewildered. He fails to understand why his girlfriend (Tia Laulusa) won't immediately accept his marriage proposal, and in the play's most powerful vignette he just can't grasp why his employee (Lydia Mackay) would be so bold as to request more time off work — especially when he's just installed a snack machine in the office.
Marriage is, of course, a hot topic here, not only in the archaic exchange of women as property but also in the generations it produces. Mackay, Ledel, and Laulusa endure a gruesome dinner party with post-apocalyptic overtones, but no matter the setting it's the maternal jabs that cut the deepest.
If it seems astonishing that Birch has packed so much into such a short script, then it's fair to say you might not have been paying attention: we're used to doing so much more with so much less.
Second Thought Theatre's production of Revolt. She said. Revolt again. runs through September 15 at Bryant Hall.