Review: 'Rapture, Blister Burn' Posits Feminism Front and Center at Little Fish Theatre

Stacy Davies

  • OnStage Los Angeles Critic

In 2013, playwright Gina Gionfriddo’s weighty and courageous existential journey into the historic and real-time struggles of women against patriarchy (and acquiescence to it) and their constant redefinition of feminism, Rapture, Blister, Burn, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize – as it should have been.

However, as a brutal and potent analysis of the female self, it’s mind-boggling, although perhaps not surprising, that when the play first staged in 2012, reviewers didn’t seem to know what to do with it. Some, like the Hollywood Reporter, called it a “bright, glib and sweet comedy of manners” – subtext: don’t be afraid, the feminism isn’t that bad! The New York Times offered a mink-gloved warning, calling it a “good old-fashioned consciousness-raising session,” which should have turned audiences away in droves (maybe it did). Other outlets focused on the messy relationships, the modernization of the argument between mothers and child-free women over what constitutes meaning and happiness, and the age-old -- and as yet undead -- lament that men don’t want women who are more successful than they are.

But that was over four years ago, and a lot has changed. Under the light of a turbulent society in which women are having discussions and debates about themselves with other women (and men) every day, particularly on social media, Gionfriddo’s play climbs to an even more enlightened height. The old arguments, while still on the table, are quickly cooling off. Today’s women are far less concerned with how to manage male expectations, instead questioning why there are any expectations at all, and often rejecting them outright. They are increasingly less interested in analyzing the wiring of male brains and voraciously dismantling all forms of patriarchy, both subtle and overt. This is especially true of millennial women, about whom this play turns out to be profoundly prophetic, and thus the power of Gionfriddo’s work now seems to come more from the feminist history lessons she offers, which earlier reviewers (and audiences) wanted to veer from, as opposed to the actual character perils in the narrative.

 Photo: Mickey Elliott

Photo: Mickey Elliott

It’s therefore quite timely that Little Fish chose to produce this play, and while its typical senior crowd might not get the most out of it (two couples left at intermission), make no mistake, this production, mounted by director Mark Piatelli, is nothing short of extraordinary. 

Weaving together the history of first, second, third (and the yet to be defined fourth) wave feminism through academic yet accessible dialogue and screen projections of everyone from Suffragettes to Dorothy Pittman Hughes, Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly with four women characters who roughly represent those waves makes Rapture one brilliant piece of educational narrative writing. The fact that it’s all housed within a fairly standard love triangle – but with fresh details and perspectives not usually mined – makes it genius.

Suzanne Dean stars as successful, forty-something feminist novelist Cathy, who returns home to care for her recently ill mother Alice (Mary Margaret Lewis) and finds herself longing for the lover she rejected 15 years earlier. Don (Patrick Rafferty) married Cathy’s roommate Gwen (Christina Morrell) when Cathy dumped him, and now he and Gwen live a typically unfulfilling middle-class, status quo life raising two children and constantly worrying about money. As the triangle begins to form, with Cathy and Gwen embarking on a very untypical and non-status quo arrangement, Gwen’s millennial babysitter Avery (Kimmy Shields) watches the troubled adults from afar, completely bewildered at how bad they all are at cutting through their bullshit. 

While the love triangle of the play is the part that will resonate with most audiences, the truly spectacular piece of structure is the summer tutorial classes that Cathy conducts with her students, Gwen and Avery (with Alice routinely popping in with a tray of martinis) regarding the waves of feminism. It is here that theory is explained and debated – including fascinating bits on the feminist backlash of slasher films and the millennial view of porn consumption – and is set up to be acted out through Gwen and Cathy’s relationship with Don, Avery’s rocky partnership, and Alice’s recollections of her deceased husband. 

It’s not glib or sweet or old-fashioned by any stretch of the imagination, but it is incredibly smart, extremely funny, and, yes, empowering – and every member of the cast is superb. Piatelli’s direction is astute, expertly utilizing the small space to create multiple planes that flow seamlessly together, and his passion for and understanding of the piece is evidenced by his actors deftness.

One caveat: it’s a very white, heteronormative play, but then, the playwright is white and straight. Still, the truths exposed are translatable to relationships outside of that dynamic, including those without men involved, those in which two men are involved, and those that are rooted in a cultural history between men and women that is far more complex than that of a WASPian nature. Power struggles, sacrifices and self-actualization break through standard binaries, and while this play focuses exclusively on man vs. woman, in essence, it’s about each of us, alone, and what we are compelled to do in order to be content.  And this is why the play remains fresh, and even more effective than it probably was at its debut. While the Pulitzer committee must have recognized its tremendous merit, we might not have been ready for it back then. We certainly are now.