The PlayWritten by Jen Silverman (who wrote The Roommate, which we saw last season at SF Playhouse), this is yet another exploration of queer gender roles, though this one is set in the somewhat likelier locale of New York City, rather than Iowa. And the level of familiarity and comfort that Silverman shows with the setting and the characters makes for a much livelier and more credible show. Where The Roommate struggled at the outset to seem plausible, Collective Rage grabs you from the opening lines and never lets go. All five Betties (yes, the five characters in the story are all named Betty).
In various groupings (and occasionally alone), the Betties explore their lives, their orientations, and their various insecurities. Although they are self-consciously caricatures of the archetypes they represent, all five Betties are well-developed and represent recognizable attributes.
It's really quite fun and funny, and in the course of the reading I heard consistent laughter from all over the audience. Not always at the same scenes or at the same lines, but there was something that tickled just about everyone, regardless of gender or orientation, etc.
I will just add that they play should perhaps carry a trigger warning for men named "Richard." Betty 1 is pretty harsh every time she mentions her husband by name, which is early and often.
One element of the story that really worked was the play-within-a-play inspired by Betty 3 going on a date to the "thea-tuh" and seeing "Summer's Midnight Dream" and being inspired to become an actor, director, producer, etc. The little riffs on the cobbling together of a rough "Pyramus and Thisbe" is both hilarious and very effectively done.
The ProductionInsert the usual disclaimer here that anything that is not pure disaster is quite a triumph for one of these readings, given the limited time and resources allotted to each. Still, this production exceeding whatever limited expectations I had by a huge margin. Aside from the slight distraction of the actors carrying scripts and a few minor blocking and prop-positioning issues, this felt like a production ready to roll. Director Brady Brophy-Hilton (assisted by Quinci Waller) deserves credit for pulling the cast together and making sure a few really key aspects of each character and some shared affectations of the whole crew came through, which is really tough for a reading such as this.
The cast was uniformly terrific. In addition to the fact that all five actors were clearly excellent choices for their particular Betties, each had a terrific persona and stage presence that evolved over the course of the reading and played well off the others. I think it's pleasantly telling that I don't feel the need to single out any of the actors--all were good, and each had at least a few really good moments where their particular characterization shone through. Again, really unexpected in a reading like this.
I guess I will call out the actors, because they all brought something to their roles. Elissa Beth Stebbins (Betty 1, and the only one of the cast I recall seeing at Shotgun before) managed to be remarkably sharp and consistent with her rage toward the aforementioned "Richard." I have to admit, hers was the only Betty from whom I felt real rage. Ayelet Firstenberg (Betty 2) managed to be both kind of ditzy and schizophrenic (complete with pantomimed hand puppet). Livia Gomes Demarchi (Betty 3) undergoes probably the most dramatic (pun slightly intended) change, though perhaps the one that makes the least sense. Rinabeth Apostol (Betty 4) achieves kind of a tough goofiness, which is a difficult combination, and still gets to be vulnerable. Lea Robinson (Betty 5) has a wonderfully understated presence, combining the self-assurance of a martial arts instructor with the shyness of a gender-queer person of color trying to get along in a complex world.
Probably the highest praise you can give for a staged reading is a great ovation at the end. I can't recall the last time I saw an audience keep up their applause so long and loud that the actors for a reading had to come back out for another bow, but our group demanded it. It was well deserved.
Bottom LineEveryone I talked to after the show expressed delight at having seen it, and many mentioned that they would like to see it again. High praise, indeed, for a reading. Although several people mentioned that it would be fun to see it again as a full production, the more we talked about it, the more we thought it might in some ways work better as a less polished, rougher reading.
I suspect that a fully-developed production would be able to tease out even more ideas and laughs from the script, and the interactions of the characters might develop more depth. This is definitely a complex and rich script, and it would probably benefit from a fairly minimalist production. Somewhere between the staged reading with three chairs as props and a full-on staging, there might be a sweet spot for this.
It's a pretty rare combination to find a truly funny play that also has real, interesting messages worked through it. The combination of clever theatrical riffs and genuine insight into a group of characters should be a real winner.
I look forward to seeing this play produced somewhere before too long.