February 8, 2015 - With talented actors, strong direction and stunning design elements, the Goodman Theatre's Rapture, Blister, Burn has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, Gina Gionfriddo's somewhat preachy script lends to more of a tedious experience than one would hope.
Catherine (Jennifer Coombs) and Gwen (Karen Janes Woditsch) are two forty-something women, each of them questioning whether the other made better choices for herself. Catherine is the sexy, single, successful feminist scholar wondering if marriage and family might have made for a more fulfilling life. Gwen, a stay at home mom, envies Catherine's power and freedom. To further complicate things, Gwen is married to Catherine's former boyfriend, Don (Mark L. Montgomery). When the women decide to trade places for the summer, thought-provoking hilarity is what we expect will ensue.
The introduction of twenty-something student, Avery (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason), adds a little levity as does Catherine's mother, Alice (Mary Ann Thebus). Acting as counter-points for Catherine and Gwen's mid-life crises, Avery and Alice take themselves a little less seriously and remind the others that there's a big, wide world outside of academia. Plus, the multi-generational perspectives are an opportunity for a little comedy. Unfortunately, the hilarity of the situation becomes muted by the delivery system for the play’s message.
Though the conflict set up in Gionfriddo's play is actually pretty interesting, it's not fully explored within the context of the characters themselves. Instead, we hear multiple lectures on the history of feminism and all of the academic controversy surrounding it. Sharing some of this background in women's history certainly makes sense. The main characters are very much influenced by their time in higher education as students, professors and administrators. However, about half of the first act is comprised of the female characters embroiled in a rather academic discussion about the evolution of feminism. Is it an engrossing discussion? Absolutely...if you're participating in a women's study class. While there is great value in the knowledge that's shared, the discussion itself makes for less compelling theater.
Act Two offers a bit more drama, but it all gets dampened with yet another lecture/discussion. Gionfriddo doesn’t exactly allow us to see more of how the characters are shifting under the weight of feminism and the pressure to “have it all?” Nor does she permit us to hear more from the women outside of an academic scenario. We get glimpses of that stress and strain, but the drama is undercut by recurring rhetoric.
Despite the flawed script, the performances by all five Chicago-based actors are quite compelling. Each of them has found a way to make their characters interesting under the weight of the script’s heavy hand. Likewise, Jack Magaw's set is stunning, and director Kimberly Senior's collaborations with Jennifer Schriever (lighting design) and Richard Woodbury (original music and sound design) are quite strong. The technical elements fit together seamlessly, and the scene changes are a lot of fun to watch.
Rapture, Blister, Burn has so much potential. It's almost a great show. However, the script feels like it needs to be workshopped to get to that place where important ideas can be distilled through subtlety and not crushed under the bombast of forceful lecture. With less preaching and more drama, Rapture, Blister, Burn might eventually be really great theater.
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Mary Ann Thebus as Alice Croll, Karen Janes Woditsch as Gwen Harper, Cassidy Slaughter-Mason as Avery Willard and Jennifer Coombs as Catherine Croll in Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn, directed by Kimberly Senior at Goodman Theatre (photo by Liz Lauren).
THEATER REVIEW: By Leslie Price