Women, far more than men, are categorized by appearance and judged by what they wear, how they walk, and whatever physical attributes they possess. In all times and in all circumstances, they must endure the intrusive male gaze, the catcalls, the hubba hubbas, and other flagrant behaviors. To be fair, some women also judge other women by appearance, by how they walk, how they talk and other metrics. Men in general don’t get it. Even the most enlightened men will sneak a peek at the passing figure of the female form divine. The supposed “biological imperative” is very powerful. In the still fresh, still appealing Betty Boop cartoons, Betty is continually fending off salacious assaults on her virtue by men who think they have some power over her. She is heroic in her resistance and in her determination to be who she wants to be. She reminds one of that other cartoon icon, Jessica Rabbit, who famously said, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”
Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Boops by Jen Silverman, is a crackling, smart play given an enthusiastic, over-the-top performance by five extraordinarily committed actors, all of whom play characters named Betty. The audience is primed by a preshow extravaganza showing multiple video clips of the divine Boop projected on the walls of the set. She sings, dances and tries to keep her short skirt in place in a windstorm. She winces and frowns at the pawings she receives from ugly old men. At the top of the show, an extended title appears in huge letters on the back wall of the set: [the show is] “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 cannot do better than to emulate some of the playwright’s character descriptions: Betty Boop 1 (Elyse Mirto) — femme, white, rich, uptight, fueled by secret rage; Betty Boop 2 (Courtney Rackley)— femme, white, rich, uptight, but coming undone; Betty Boop 3 (Anna Lamadrid)— latina, pretty, charismatic and kind of a know-it-all; Betty Boop 4 (Karen Anzoategu)— butch lesbian, loves her truck, great tattoos, nothin’ but a hound dog; and Betty Boop 5 (Tracey A. Leigh) — butch lesbian, black, loves her truck, just out of prison, great tattoos, owns a hole-in-the-wall boxing gym. How these women come together and find their better selves, each in their own trajectory, is the ninety-minutes traffic of the play. The haughty come off their pedestal, the shy come out of their shell, the domineering are humbled, the inarticulate find a voice, and the ones who long for it find love. All this is performed with great passion, great comedy, and fine style.
There is a play within this play that spins the action along as the characters fall in love with “the theatuh.” After seeing a show, Betty 3 decides she wants to be a star and determines to make a play and drafts the other Bettys to take part. The bit is an homage to a very well-known work by a very well-known playwright that many in the audience will recognize.
Although this is a play by women and about women, masculinity is still in the mix. The external details of masculine and feminine are fluid and ultimately come down to genitalia. There has been a lot of chatter these days about a particular part of the female anatomy, so this play is timely. In this play Pussy rules!
The simple open set by Francois Pierre Couture, with lighting by Karyn Lawrence, maximizes the playing space. Hana S. Kim designed the impressive projection. Peter Bayne’s sound design is superb; costume design by Ann Closs Farley enhances character; and the properties designed by Jenny Smith Cohn are perfect.
Impeccably directed with great style by Lindsay Allbaugh, Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Boops is utterly absorbing. The Theatre @ Boston Court production runs through March 19 in Pasadena.