Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Rapture, Blister, Burn at Ensemble Theatre

Tough, smart, and funny, this comedy 
examines middle age envy with compassion and vigor

     Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn merits the strong production directed by Lynn Meyers at Ensemble.  It’s a high comedy in which the ideals of the academic set in a New England college town conflict both hilariously and
poignantly with their middle-class, middle-aged manners.  I preferred this script to Ensemble’s earlier Other Desert Cities because the writing is intellectually more engaging and the possible outcomes for the plot are more surprising.  It’s an up-to-the-minute version of a Shavian play of ideas, but emotional and physical heterosexual relations are completely shown, rather than talked about as they are in Shaw.  

     Gionfriddo uses current views about the ‘60s – ‘70s Women’s Lib movement and its aftermath as a philosophical armature for how articulate, middle-class Generation Xers see themselves and their potential futures.  Catherine (Corinne 
Mohlenhoff and Linhart*
Mohlenhoff) is a top academic, who has moved back home to help her mother Alice (Patricia Linhart) recover from a heart attack.  She’s arranged a visiting professorship, while on sabbatical from her higher profile teaching position, with the help of her old college roommate and stay-at-home mom Gwen (Jen Joplin) and her husband Don (Charlie Clark), Dean of Discipline and also Catherine’s ex-boyfriend from when the three were in graduate school together.  Avery (Hannah Sawicki) begins as the babysitter for Gwen and Don’s sons, but she becomes Catherine’s student.  

     As the three Xers (Catherine, Don, and Gwen) wrestle with the professional and personal choices they made in their lives versus the ones they’d wished they made and hope to eventually achieve, it becomes apparent that their shared level of self-awareness is far lower than that of Silent Generation representative Alice or the Millennial mouth-piece Avery.  Though it’s contemporary in setting and wide-ranging in presenting political persuasions (Gionfriddo even includes a cogent discussion of Phyllis Schlafly’s main argument regarding feminism), it’s in the tradition of comedy where the young and the old see the truth while the middle-aged struggle with their self-delusions.

Joplin and Sawicki's Private Lesson*
     The cast members have a wonderful vitality and the guts to look and act their ages.  Linhart and Sawicki are delightful; though the latter wrestled with some of her lines at the dress rehearsal we attended.  Mohlenhoff uses her elegant physique and alto voice to great effect as a physical and intellectual seductress in spite of herself.  Joplin physically realizes an earth mother, who’s tied up in frustrated notions of who she and her husband should have been.  Clark has been
Clark and Dexter*
extremely effective in musicals and dramas over the past decade, but he’s betrayed by the weak beginning of the script.  However, it takes off after the first scene.  His performance also strengthens, though his hand gesticulations become repetitive.

     Brian c. Mehring nails the set, which shows both Don and Gwen’s backyard and Alice’s living room.  The interior set looks exactly how an educated, middle-class woman would have decorated her home in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, but not have updated.  Though the play takes place in New England, it could be any college town.  Fortunately, the cast avoids New England accents since they aren’t needed unlike the Boston ones in Good People.

Rapture, Blister, Burn runs through October 27, 2013.
*Photos taken from the ETC website

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