Are you a feminist? Of course you are. Isn’t everybody? At least, we all say we are.
And yet, inequality persists. Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is both a call to arms and a cry of anguish at the fact that women need to take extraordinary measures just to approach a basic level of fair treatment.
Frank Theatre is now giving the 2014 play an appropriately passionate production at Gremlin Theatre, under the direction of Wendy Knox and also literally under hundreds of symbols of traditional femininity — dolls, brassieres, wine glasses — hung aloft by properties designer Kellie Larson. In this context, a rolling pin feels like a Sword of Damocles.
The set resembles a walk-in closet, full of costumes that the six-member cast change into and out of as they shift characters in a handful of sketches that culminate in a rapid-fire, almost surreal series of exchanges that evoke the swirl of conflicting expectations surrounding women in the 21st century.
The show starts on a lighthearted note but becomes steadily more challenging, in both metaphorical complexity and in emotional tenor. The first sketch is a romantic romp between a heterosexual couple (Joy Dolo and Grant Henderson), with the woman turning the man’s language back on him to reveal just how gendered and possessive his ostensibly affectionate come-ons are.
Subsequent scenes deconstruct the patriarchal roots of marriage (a woman played by Emily Grodzik likens it to a suicide bomb) and employers’ tendency to offer token lifestyle concessions instead of meaningful policies like schedule flexibility. In the play’s most broadly comedic moment, a boss played by Henderson becomes apoplectic when a chocolate bar doesn’t solve every problem for his female employee (Charla Marie Bailey).
Things get darker when a trio of supermarket workers (Henderson, Jane Froiland, and Gabriel Murphy) have to confront a customer (Dolo) for prostrating herself half-naked in the dairy aisle. Dolo, notably fearless throughout the production, angrily explains that she’s abandoned all defenses of her body, as choosing to be completely available is the only way to escape constant violation.
In the following scene, Froiland is overcome with the anguish of managing relationships with a distant mother (Bailey) and a self-destructive daughter (Grodzik). It’s a chilling view of motherhood as a painful burden, staged in front of projected words reading REVOLUTIONIZE THE WORLD (DON'T REPRODUCE).
Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is a bracing and provocative experience, and one that’s also, often, amusing. The Frank cast invest the young British playwright's biting script with both conviction and vulnerability, as well as a sure sense of the absurd — in a play that argues we need to rethink our ideas of what's absurd and what's common sense.
The play ends with the cast's four women launching an actual revolt, and the plans outlined in that brief scene are dropped like a gauntlet. Revolt seems destined to have a long life, as a fiery and accessible exploration of radical feminism. Frank's production captures the sense of poignant desperation resulting from Birch's clear-eyed understanding that the play's themes won't become irrelevant any time soon.