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Daniel Abeles, Molly Bernard, Jennifer Ikeda, & Eboni Booth in Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. Photo: Julieta Cervantes
Who: Alice Birch, playwright; Lileana Blain-Cruz, director
Where: Soho Rep
When: April 5-May 22, 2016 (opened April 19)
Why Watch: This is the American debut for the 29-year-old British playwright Alice Birch, whose bracing call for feminist revolution (inspired by – but not as incendiary as – Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto) was first produced in 2014 at the Royal Court in London. Revolt. is helmed by 31-year-old Lileana Blain-Cruz who will have directed six shows this season (an insane amount for someone who had never directed in NYC before now), including Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ War. In other words, these are two smart, adventurous women who are going to say what they want and how they want it. And thank Christ for that.
Is Revolt. in-your-face theatre? Sure is, and if the current presidential election is any indication of larger behaviors, the ways in which we speak and think about and engage with women is not just outdated – it’s fucking egregious. Enter Alice Birch, whose brief (only 65 minutes!) but ferocious play is a call to arms to women everywhere to change the conversation and behavior so ingrained in our society that we rarely recognize the micro – and even the macro – aggressions for the sexist, often violent, sensibilities they are. In a series of manifesto-like vignettes, Birch incites us to invert our traditionally narrow ideas of marriage, sex, women’s bodies, and work, and to do so by revolutionizing the language which we use to frame those ideas. To that end, she pointedly supertitles each scene (projection design by Hannah Wasileski), e.g., “Revolutionize the world (don’t reproduce).”
If this sounds like an over-the-top women’s studies class on fourth wave feminism, don’t be fooled. Birch cleverly harnesses humor, deploying it playfully and cuttingly, throughout her theatrical provocation. She starts slow, and with a wink: a man (Daniel Abeles) and woman (an acerbic Molly Bernard from TV’s Younger) on a bare stage save two chairs, post-date, enact the ritual of seduction. He declares what he wants to do to her (fuck her, penetrate her); she feistily responds with what they’ll do together (have sex, make love) and then, disconcertingly (for him), what she’ll do to him (her vagina will swallow his penis). It’s a cheeky inversion of the inherently savage ways in which we typically discuss sex (male as aggressively active, woman as demurely passive), and Birch’s inversion of the language builds to comic heights as the scene continues. Then there’s the woman who wants Mondays off – to sleep, not to reproduce as her (purposefully) female boss assumes – and, eventually, in a Grand Guignol finale, Birch viciously tackles the troubled legacy of motherhood when three generations of women gather together for a picnic, and knives are used for cutting more than just watermelon.
As played out under Blain-Cruz’s incisive, calculating direction and on Adam Rigg’s stark set that grows into a luscious garden just as chaos erupts with stereotyped images and phrases of femininity, Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is a sharp, unsettling, and brutally funny work that calls to mind Caryl Churchill’s unconventional structure (and stringent feminism) and Sarah Kane’s poetic violence. The cast (which also includes a deliberate, no-nonsense Jennifer Ikeda and subtly subversive Eboni Booth) is caustic, strong, and game as hell, diving into the piece, equal parts beauty and blood. The call is clear: hope for change isn’t enough; thoughtful idealism must give way to remorseless revolution. Revolt. And then revolt again.
Bechdel Test: PASS (but cheating)
Racial Bechdel Test: PASS