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Extremeties/Talking With . . .

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EXTREMITIES

Tara Productions

at the Broadway Arts Center

TALKING WITH . . .

Chicago Cooperative Stage

Extremities indeed. Few plays carry a more accurate title than William Mastrosimone's--or lurch more violently from one desperation to its not so opposite extreme. In two very troubled acts, Mastrosimone's Extremities re-creates both an attempted rape and the victim's revenge. And how damn little they differ. Either way, justice, reason, and humanity don't stand a chance against undiluted vengeance.

Which brings up the thorny question: should they? If you've been raped (or threatened with rape), is an eye for an eye primitive vigilantism or the perfect psychotherapy? Whose side is the law on anyway?

According to Tara Productions' program notes, Mastrosimone wrote Extremities in 24 hours, shortly after meeting a 55-year-old woman who had been raped, had pressed charges, had positively identified a suspect--but then saw the man go free. It didn't stop there: the suspect harassed her into moving to the other end of the country. The woman told Mastrosimone that what most haunted her was the one chance she had to turn the tables--as the rapist smoked a cigarette. But the moment passed, leaving her to wonder what she could have done.

Things go differently in Extremities. Mastrosimone's (antiheroine?) Marjorie lets in a man who quickly drops the small talk, slams her to the floor, and almost smothers her with a pillow as he commands her to say "thank you," "I love you," and "I am your puta." Clearly, degradation isn't enough for Raul--who, we later discover, has raped many times before (the average rapist, the notes say, rapes 29 times!). No, Raul wants a willing victim. With sickening rapist logic he whispers, "Don't let it get ugly."

But Marjorie suddenly reverses the balance of power: she blinds Raul with Raid, ties him up, and shoves him into the fireplace, where she pokes him with the andiron and threatens to set him on fire. Now Raul begins his strange bargaining. He taunts her to call the cops--knowing it's his word against her lack of evidence and she'd be the one on trial. Agreeing that Raul is only too right, Marjorie intends to bury him in the backyard--"I make my own law." But when Marjorie's roommates arrive, quick-thinking Raul tries the lawyer's favorite tactic--blaming the victim. Spilling secrets he improbably picked up intercepting their mail, he attempts to pit the women against each other. He squirms with ready (and often hilarious) explanations. He is merely a Good Humor driver, he pleads, who came to use the phone and was assaulted by a crazy lady.

Just as the roommates are on the brink of believing that Marjorie either made up the rape or else asked for it (she does parade around in her nighties), Mastrosimone rapidly shifts our sympathies back to the victim. His trick too neatly resolves the question of whether Marjorie was right to want to impose her own justice.

Extremities is not without its excesses. Raul's witty, cool rejoinders don't always fit a blinded man who can't be sure that at any moment he won't go up in flames. The roommates' sisterly solidarity founders a bit too automatically. Finally, Marjorie--a role that's virtually a two-act scream interrupted by dialogue--has to maintain a white-hot rage from start to finish, even when the playwright stupidly has her talking to herself.

That Joanie Fitzgerald doesn't hold Marjorie to a fierce boil is the chief defect of this Tara Productions production. In a role that can't for one moment turn tentative or forced, Fitzgerald seems constantly on the brink of forgetting she's mad enough to kill; it's a fatal energy lapse.

Fitzgerald aside, Michael J. O'Connor's underrehearsed staging (the andirons were repeatedly knocked over) suffers from clumsy scene changes, awkward blocking, jerky line readings, and tepid scene building. As the hard-hearted roommate whose memories of her own rape ironically prevent her from siding with Marjorie, Nancy Langert mistakenly plays up her character's surliness and misses the repression. Charmaine Tellefsen gets deeper into the other roommate, reality-principle Patricia (she is alternating the role with Roseanne M. Benson), but again there's too little playing the moment and too much waiting for the next cue.

The only fully realized role is Francis Moses Valach's sadomasochistic, manic-depressive Raul (the director is also scheduled to occasionally play the part). Nothing tentative here--Valach roars and whines with bedrock sincerity; changing strategies on a dime, he switches from plea bargaining to shrewd threats to a final humiliation that oddly proves Raul is human. Valach carries the play like a freight train.

Eleven women speak their peace (or lack thereof) in Talking With . . ., pungent, bittersweet, and well-targeted monologues by a certain "Jane Martin." The show's become very popular, with two productions so far this year alone: last month's revival by Heroes Inc., and this excellent version from Chicago Cooperative Stage, a Bucktown troupe worth watching.

A good case of scattershot stagecraft, Talking With knows if one confessional doesn't get you, the next one will. You can't keep a good speech down, especially when it's packed with fully felt life and surrounded with a cappella songs first done by Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash, Bette Midler.

Though well propped to particularize the portraits, Elaine P. Behr's staging aims for what's universal amid the evasions and eccentricities. Despite their differences, for example, several sketches clearly seek a special dispensation, often from mortality itself: a woman (Molly Reynolds) wants to move into McDonald's, where she just knows death can't enter; a Holy Rolling snake handler (Dorothy Hickman with a real snake) knows the serpents can sense emptiness before they bite, so while lacking faith she fills herself with enough love to confuse them; an older woman (Jacqueline Verdeyen) surrounded by lamps is in love with how light (life?) dies away; a sultry tattooed lady (Susan De Vany) slashed in a sexual assault turns her scar into a mark of life testifying to how she's set apart.

Martin can riff a metaphor into a way of life: a baton twirler (Donna Harrison) spat upon for her art ("Being denied showed me the way") boasts she can throw her soul up to God and see the world from 30 feet; a frustrated housewife (Cynthia Lynch) escapes by dressing--very convincingly--as Scraps, an Oz character she fears may ultimately replace her own personality. A daughter (Marian Carol) describes her dying mother marking off her last months by daily letting go of a clear glass marble--but in death clinging fiercely to the last one. A pregnant woman (Karol Strempke) tortured by contractions and sure she's giving birth to a dragon, writhes in very palpable pain.

Several outbursts misfire: the cutely naive opener--an actress (Peggy Davis) making up before going on wants bios of the audience--to even up the exposure of herself she's about to undergo; a crazed actor (Liz Sorrells) threatens to kill a cat she brought to the audition if she doesn't get the part--the real cat onstage makes this too ugly; and maybe the bronco buster (Tilney Sheldon) who's lamenting the corruption of rodeos, wallows (as written, though not as performed) a tad too much in self-pity.

Still, like the other eight, these women are so well rendered you won't dislike them till later. If then.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Evette Cardona.

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