Photo by Bobby Brewer-Wallin.
Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again, by Alice Birch, now playing at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, is one of those plays that you experience first and think about later. It punches you in the gut as you watch, and then again in the head when you get home.
Revolt follows in the tradition of British in-yer-face theatre, a genre originating in the 1990s that stages scenes of graphic sex and violence for both political commentary and to create a visceral audience experience. Indeed, some passages of Revolt could have been pulled directly from Sarah Kane’s Crave, while another scene smacks of Mark Ravenhill’s Shoot / Get Treasure / Repeat. The similarities are less in imitation than homage, I think, as Birch definitely has her own flavor. This is a genre that lies close to my heart, and I felt quite at home in Willamette University’s intimate, black box theatre. But this play is not for the faint of heart. There is blood and language and half-naked bodies and even a bit of shopping and f**king (that’s a Ravenhill joke). It seems like these things are all around us now, both in our media and in our politics, but it still makes an audience suck in its collective breath when a women cuts off her own head on stage with a satisfying little “pop.” That’s the power of liveness.
So what is this play about? Well… it is about the absurdity of language, and rape culture, and intergenerational trauma, and whether marriage eclipses love, and how hard it is to flex your work schedule when you just want to get a few more hours of sleep on a Monday. There are a few times when the play seems to hit its topic a bit on the nose, but it mostly does such a good job of overwhelming the senses that it doesn’t matter. The play is actually comprised of five short vignettes, each separate from the others, but with themes that echo and refrain throughout the piece. In one, a gay couple fights over whether marriage will destroy their relationship, the proposal likened to an invitation to strap on a suicide vest filled with explosives. In another, a woman escapes to a farm to escape her abusive husband, only to pass on that trauma to her daughter and grand-daughter. The language of abuse leaves them few choices: smile in idiotic denial, sing, or cut your own tongue out. The play leans hard on the use of the long monologue (less in-yer-face than an old trick from expressionism)—sometimes minutes long—to beat down both the other characters and the audience. The final minutes of the play descend into chaos as the play undoes itself, becoming a maelstrom of words and violence and bodies that goes on just a bit too long (but would it be in-yer-face if it was not too long?).
As always at Willamette, the production values are superb. The set (designed by Leazah Behrens) is a metal cube enclosed with scrim and a bare, tiled floor. It is not minimalism, so much as a place of confinement, confrontation, and battle. The costumes (by Bobby Brewer-Wallin) evoke archetypes more than specific characters: A pencil-thin business suit for the boss in the office scene, opposed to a wooly sweater (?) for the worker who just wants a day off. The fighting couple look like they have just escaped from a wedding party, perhaps by the skin of their teeth. The sound design (by Robert Vaughn) sets the mood and the place. In the pre-show, feminist power ballads by Lizzo and the Eurythmics give us a taste of things to come, while punk rock and pulsing lights covers the transitions. Ambient sounds in the office and the supermarket at first had me looking around to shush the people next to me (no—it’s all part of the show).
The directing, by guest artist Marina McClure, emphasizes language and bodies. The first few minutes are played in virtual darkness (provocative backlighting designed by Sarah Hughey) so that we can only focus on the language and on the silhouettes. I admit that I was a little worried at first, as the highly sexualized dialogue (a back-and-forth description of a sex fantasy) was played in a decidedly anesthetic way, but that was the point: to take the language of sex and then subvert it. And so it goes through the rest of the play. McClure says in her director’s note, “She [the playwright] seems to be arguing that the trauma language can create is actually a method of wielding power and controlling people,” and this idea is brought to the fore with bits of text (little messages of revolution) hidden in various places around the set. The rest of the directing is highly theatrical, with movement in some scenes stylized to the point of choreography. McClure keeps both the tempo and the actors moving, with the entire piece clocking in at a tight 70 minutes. Above all, the production does not hold back, which is exactly what the piece needs.
Brava to the courageous ensemble of young actors who fully commit to absolutely everything, five women (Bradford, Emily Embleton, Shelby Fenn, Grace Goodyear, and Lani Southern) and one man (Garrett Blackburn). They showcase not only the technical skill to master their endless monologues and choreography, but bravery to bear themselves so openly—both emotionally and physically (credit to intimacy director Amanda Cole). It is difficult to single out any one performance for praise when each one had a moment that hit home, but my personal favorite was the monologue in the supermarket scene. We watch, helplessly, as the character (played by Grace Goodyear) disintegrates before our very eyes, her body pressed into nothingness by a tidal wave of culture, so that smashing a pair of watermelons on the floor of aisle 7 served as one small revolt against generations of oppression. I was moved and affected. Kudos.
The production had no curtain call. On one hand, I was disappointed, because I wanted to applaud these fearless actors. On the other hand, the choice allowed me to sit and breath and process. The play ends with a lament: “Who knew life could be so awful?” The statement—and the play—could be construed as nihilism, but like all in-yer-face plays (and all absurdist plays), I think it is ultimately optimistic. To revolt is to hope.