Firehouse Theatre presentation of ‘Extremities’ digs into rape and victimization with fierce determination.
Extremities is a 1982 play written by William Mastrosimone which successfully played Off-Broadway, first with Susan Sarandon and then Farah Fawcett, one of Charlie’s Angels.
Ms. Fawcett, who everybody thought could only look good, proved she had acting chops in this role. She was asked to star in the 1986 film of the same name for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe.
I have long known of this play but have never seen it. Frankly, when it came out, I was a 20 something guy who was not very sensitive to women’s issues. I resisted “issue” plays, “women’s plays” and “rape” plays. Extremities is all three.
Interestingly, Ms. Fawcett also starred in The Burning Bed on TV, where she sets fire to her abusive husband while he slept. I couldn’t watch that one either.
The “issue” play is a double edged sword. Sanctifying a script as being “important” for the presentation of a serious social issue doesn’t necessarily make it good. If it’s not good, it won’t help the cause much.
Fortunately, this is a well-crafted script. It has interesting twists and surprises. It shows a woman who can be as threatening, if not more threatening, than the man who threatened her.
Katherine Wright’s Marjorie is viciously attacked by a man named Raul (craftily played by young Austin Riley) who just walks into her apartment. She must have forgotten to lock the door after herself. He menaces and terrorizes her and us cruelly before she overtakes him and turns the tables, making him her victim.
Ms. Wright fights like a ninja when it seems hopeless that she can’t overpower this man. She has wonderful physical skills and gives a solid performance but is held back by some cumbersome fight choreography and stage direction.
Some of that has to do with the limits of the set design which did not allow for wider stage choreography which would have been useful for the fights or the drama. The down stage right area could have been shod of its kitchen table, chairs and two unused bicycles.
The women could have had a bar to sit at and we’d have more room to move.
Nevertheless, Ms. Wright made good use of what space she had. I felt her terror and fear was realistically presented.
There was less specificity in other scenes. The beginning scene is tricky as she has to react to the growing terror escalating in front of her. It seemed Ms. Wright had no visible reaction for quite a while. There are probably stronger choices.
In Act II when she holds everyone else in the apartment hostage with a hammer, there is a level of desperation, madness or just gross psychological fatigue that could have been affective and totally believable, given the assault she just faced. This might have cleared the way for her descent into desperation.
Her dilemma is that she has no physical evidence of the attack. His rape was thwarted. She has no bruises. Realizing the futility of reporting the crime, and the danger of leaving Raul free to attack again, she seriously plans to murder him. For a very long while, Ms. Wright brings us with her to that conclusion and we see her logic.
When the tables turn we gain some prurient interest in what’s happening to Raul. He becomes her prisoner. She encages him in the fireplace recess. She beats and tortures him. Most of the way we’re okay with that.
Is she justified? Is he an animal as she claims or is he a victim as well? Is she justified to make whatever choice works best for her, or should she accord Raul the human rights that he repeatedly demands? Should he be killed for his crime? Should she subvert the law because in this case the law may not be fair? Do criminals have too many rights?
All very difficult questions that, like any good playwright, Mastrosimone lets us ponder for ourselves.
Austin Riley is horrific when in power and slightly weaker than you would like when caged. His immaturity comes to the forefront when assaulted and faced with his death. Mr. Riley loses a certain steeliness that would have extended his menace into his bondage. Raul is damaged but crafty. He knows the law and threatens her with it. He knows how society’s opinion of sexual assault turns on a dime.
Friends and neighbors might not believe you if all they saw is a man beaten and chained while you are injury free. Sickeningly, it happens all the time.
Though he is tortured, it doesn’t appear he has been broken.
Perhaps the illusion is compromised because the binding was less than convincing. The binds placed on Raul, the hands, legs, neck etc., were not very realistic. They looked pretty easy to get out of. It’s a props issue and safety issue for the actor. I won’t spill too much to tell you that Marjorie physically incapacitates him. Even so, he needed to be safely secured in that makeshift cell to convince the audience that all were safe from him.
I focus on Raul not because the implications of Marjorie’s actions all center on what he has done. The director, Katherine Jones, is definitely more focused on Marjorie’s journey than Raul’s. Working in conjunction with the group Safe Harbor, Ms. Jones received assistance to produce this piece at John Tyler Community College as an educational tool to reach out to persons who have been abused.
Safe Harbor offers comprehensive services for survivors of sexual and/or intimate partner violence including: 24 hour helpline, children/youth services, community education and training, counseling, court advocacy, emergency shelter, and hospital accompaniment. Their team collaborates with survivors to provide support, education and referral information to help survivors meet their goals. Information about contacting their organization is at the end of this piece.
It is certain that the play is primarily about Marjorie’s journey. Director Jones highlights that Marjorie, finding herself in the enviable position of control, is justified in using whatever means necessary to get revenge of any sort. The direction in that vein was a little heavy handed but Ms. Jones has no regrets about her choices.
Again, the set design limited her staging choices which lead her to focus on specific spaces, one at a time. As it turned out, she kept most of the action fluid in Act I when menace was pervasive but less than fluid in Act II when the philosophical discussions took over.
Grace Kolbert and Jennie Sappington played roommates to Marjorie. Each had specific reasons for being there. The young girl brought perspective to the horror of bodily invasion and the mother, a professional Social Worker, tried her best, and sometimes succeeded, at calming the tension to produce a game plan of sorts. Both actresses did a fine job.
As a father of daughters I would have been okay with murdering Raul but I would have had her “neuter” him first. Despite my glee, if I was sitting on her jury I would not have acquitted her for murder. She was, and I would have found her Guilty. Seems to me Marjorie was willing to pay that price.
Message plays always remind me of the high school touring shows on subjects like teen pregnancy, doing drugs, getting scared straight, etc. Extremities happens to be a piece of theatre that can act as a message, an education, an opportunity to get help as well as just being a satisfying, well written drama. Not to say that Mr. Mastrosimone doesn’t blur the lines to make the dilemma work in Marjorie’s favor and make the outcome more palatable for an audience. He does. Still, he has a place he needs to take us and does so with great skill.
It’s a powerful play with a power empowerment message for women and a cautionary tale for men. Firehouse continues to bring smart, intelligent, relevant plays into their house to the education and satisfaction of all.
If you are in an abusive situation, help is at hand. Contact Safe Harbor at P.O Box 17996, Richmond, VA 23226, Office: 804-249-9470, Fax: 804-249-9472, firstname.lastname@example.org
In the midst of a politically tumultuous election season, Director James Ricks brings a fresh take on two classic pieces of writing to the Firehouse Theatre in a play contrasting two political extremes. “UBU 84,” a mash-up of the 19th century French play “Ubu Roi” and George Orwell’s 1984, is the product of Joel Bassin, [...]September 8, 2016
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