Promoting her latest pop conservative book, Ann Coulter asserted that children of single mothers grow up to be "strippers, rapists and murderers.” The suspect validity of that statement aside, her conflation of rape and murder (crimes!) with stripping (not a crime!) went unremarked upon during her interview on Hannity & Colmes last month. Fittingly, That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play, the latest from provocative playwright Sheila Callaghan, addresses such incongruities by featuring heroines who are strippers turned murder-rapists. A loopy meditation on rape culture, That Pretty Pretty is sometimes shrewd and sometimes silly. The play makes its points elliptically rather than directly and has a lot of fun with its own conceit: a screenwriter works through his own gendered emotional baggage while harboring under the delusion that he is creating a feminist screenplay. It’s a sneaky device that allows the play’s loosely connected scenes to cover a wide array of styles, excuses textual inconsistencies, and permits plot lines to wholly change course at whim. The mutability of the play’s world will frustrate audience members eager to know the rules from the get-go; better to sit back and enjoy its horrific humor while allowing the play to explain itself.
Callaghan is an inventive playwright most at home in goofy scenes that build toward incisive political statements. In the hands of director Kip Fagan, who understands exactly what Callaghan is getting at, the misogynist fantasy that women (or certain types of women) are criminally sexy and vicious beyond redemption is broad comedy. The production also takes satirical aim at the notion that male artists who perceive themselves as sensitive have a free pass at writing female (and male) characters however they please.
The versatile cast shifts with boundless energy between genres that range from high comedy to kooky melodrama to torture porn and back again. Connecting the diverse styles is the fact that they are all performed in virtual quotation marks, with the threads of every scene threatening to unravel at any moment. That they don't is a credit to Fagen, who trusts Callaghan's script enough that, without losing control of the production, he pushes each scene to its edges of cohesion. Doing so underscores all the fun with an effective sense of unease. It's as quietly unsettling as the play's subject matter is blatantly upsetting.
In addition to its impressively broad, boldly stylized sequences, That Pretty Pretty contains moments of realism. The realistic scenes, which feature screenwriter Owen and his buddy Rodney, help separate the real world (set primarily in a hotel room) with the scenes that exist within Owen's screenplay (set in a hotel room, a posh restaurant, a mud wrestling pit, and a wartime hospital, among other locations) in its various stages of development. That concept is enhanced by Narelle Sission's set design, which depicts a fully rendered, identifiably generic hotel room. Various set pieces (a fancy chandelier, a tarp) drop in and out of that generic space to suggest the play's more outlandish settings.
Inside the hotel room, the Owen/Rodney scenes get the narrative job done, but offer little in the way of dramatic insight or fresh perspectives of gender and power. Callaghan is more in her element in the compellingly outrageous segments that comprise the play's most indelible scenes. Part of the pleasure of the play comes from the sacrilege of seeing vile subject matter treated as light farce, yet there are no cheap laughs in That Pretty Pretty and little is included for shock value alone. Rather than confrontationally attack audiences, the production invites audience members to delight in its squirm-inducing irreverence. The ability to wildly push boundaries without sacrificing its warmth make That Pretty Pretty a welcome piece of powerful theater.