REVIEW: PURE's Rapture, Blister, Burn is a hilarious think piece that tackles gender roles, feminism, and porn

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Rapture, Blister, Burn
 is perhaps the only play in which Dr. Phil is mentioned in the same breath as feminist theorists Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly.

Though the title of Dr. Phil’s book Love Smart: Find the One You Want – Fix the One You’ve Got has a strange resonance with the play that opened PURE Theatre’s 13th season, his mentioning by the cast typifies the the show, which is a witty and at times hilarious think-piece that explores the nuances of feminism and equality in relationships. And often turning such ideals espoused by Friedan and Schlafly on their head.

The discussion of feminism stands out during Rapture, with three generations of women reconciling these ideals with the practical challenges they have faced so far in their lives. Cathy (Sharon Graci) has focused on her career and remains unmarried, whereas her college roommate Gwen (Erin Wilson) dropped out to start a family with Don (R.W. Smith). Cathy has returned home to care for her ailing mother Alice (Cynthia Barnett), who provides a more traditional perspective of domestic roles to the discussion. Meanwhile, Gwen’s husband Don reconnects with Cathy, who he dated in college before Cathy left for London to pursue her career. Along with Avery — a 21-year-old student who brusquely offers her opinions as a mouthpiece for the current generation of bold young women — the group of characters examines why they made the choices they did in life, and they concoct a plan to reset everything.

The play digs deeply into feminist and media theory, citing works by Friedan, Schafly, Nancy Friday, and Carol Clover, among others. At times, the dialogue can seem as though it were lifted verbatim from an introductory gender studies course, but it is mostly buoyed by the cast’s savvy acting and close rapport with each other. The characters unravel the complexities of such theory, showing that these ideas are not rigid ideologies. As a viewer, one can expect to learn a lot and have preconceived notions of feminism overturned; without giving too much away, this writer will never see slasher films — or Google Maps — in the same light again.

But aside from Gender 101 theory, Graci’s elegant and reasoning Cathy provides the audience a vehicle through which to view the issues the characters discuss. And the input from the other characters provides for captivating dialogue despite the sometimes heavy subject material. Cathy’s struggles and decisions become very relatable to the audience, certainly due to the pathos imbued into the character by Graci. The drama and tension underlying various scenes — including a class in which Gwen suspects her husband Don has been sleeping with Cathy — is a credit to the ensemble’s acting prowess.

Hamilton as Avery gives perhaps the play’s best performance, as she brashly interjects her thoughts into scenes with audacious bravado. The lines written for the character are at times razor-sharp, but Hamilton’s animating of the saucy young woman often steals the show with quips like “If you choose the right career and the right husband, you can afford to outsource the homemaker shit.”

Avery’s brashness is echoed by the play’s willingness to tackle taboo subjects like pornography — and there is a lot of discussion of porn at that. In fact, pornography seems to act as a litmus test in the play, with each character’s attitude toward it being a marker of their beliefs. There’s Cathy, who objectively studies it, but is not always so neutral about it. Gwen and Alice prefer not to speak of it it, while Avery states that she has gained emotional empowerment in stripping. And then there’s Don, who just “jerks off to a computer while [his] family is watching Toy Story.”

Beyond the cast, the play’s discussion of feminism was reflected creatively in costume and set design. Cathy often appears in chic dresses and high heels, while suburbanites Gwen and Don sport the casual garb one may see on the sidelines of a kid’s soccer match. Avery first appears in full punk rock mode with heavy makeup, purple hair highlights, and enough metal bracelets to cause panic at an airport security line.

Most of the play takes place in Alice’s home, which unsurprisingly appears as a proper Victorian living room with antique furniture. Evoking the 1950s, the women also drink martinis out of crystal glasses served by Alice. Such a domestic setting adds an interesting dimension to the various conversations that take place within it.

Between scenes, the house speakers blast songs by female singers and rock bands, including Lykke Li, Dum Dum Girls, and Joan Jett. Beyond the subject matter of the play, the choice of such music is poignant as the play’s title stems from the song “Use Once & Destroy” by the band Hole.

By the time it ends, the Rapture, Blister, Burn is a lively and engaging discussion of topics in feminism, but like Cathy admits at one point, it’s really about equality in any relationship in the face of practical obstacles: “In a relationship between two people, you can’t both go first.” As the saying goes, the grass is always greener, but this play shows that the greener pastures may just be a mirage. Besides, the yellowish-brownish grass isn’t so bad when you’ve got people who love you by your side, toasting to the future.




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