At last, a genuine mind-blowing theater experience. Outside the Live Arts/Fringe festivals, plays like Theatre Exile's That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play seldom happen. Sheila Callaghan's 2009 dark comedy evokes — and provokes — in ways that demand, and deserve, attention.
First, we're in a hotel room — complete with spectacular set, light and video design by Jorge Cousineau — with Agnes (Charlotte Ford) and Valerie (Christie Parker), absurdly hot women who kill a hapless john and pose playfully with the corpse, posing pics for their blog. Callaghan hints at Valerie's feminist agenda, but keeps them endearing through sugar-fueled nattering (Agnes' childlike urges range from peeing on the bed to doughnuts and playing piano) and appearances by circa-1980 Jane Fonda (Amy Smith), channeling her famous angst and activism into workout videos.
Just when we're feeling comfortable — sure, they're murderers, but so funny, and so damn hot — we find ourselves (after a clever live-to-video, video-to-live switcheroo) reliving the same scenario, but with men (Allen Radway as Owen/Valerie, Jered McLenigan as Rodney/Agnes), and it's now a sick misogynistic rampage. Maybe we wonder what this says about us — while, let's face it, getting off on the intensified blood effects.
While Callaghan resists a straightforward narrative, coherent fragments emerge: Owen and Rodney are "real," writing a screenplay based on their experiences and/or fantasies, and their fictional "feminism" is less a portrayal of "the fucked-up shit chicks go through" than a slyly twisted exploration of their own repressed femininity, climaxing outrageously when Owen, donning wig and Agnes' yellow gown, is seduced by an '80s rock star (McLenigan, also bewigged) and then gives birth. Suddenly, the misogyny turns inward: Looking in the mirror, Owen realizes, "She's so pretty I need to bash her."
Where director Joe Canuso's dynamic production takes us — with more Fonda, violence and coarse freaky humor, plus Jell-O wrestling at a formal dinner — is a hyperactive rumination about creativity. Which stories touch us, and why? Owen's film somehow makes Valerie and Agnes dignified and heroic, earning an unseen film festival audience's praise. Both he, and we, are left dumbstruck — and dizzyingly alive. Through Dec. 5, $27-$32, Theatre Exile, Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St., 215-218-4022, theatreexile.org.