That Pretty Pretty; Or, the Rape Play
By Sheila Callaghan, Directed by Jayme Kilburn
At Strand Theater Through Feb. 18
Despite the warning that the show you are about to watch will contain graphic content, gunfire, cigarette smoke, and strobe lights, you will be shocked by what you see in That Pretty Pretty; Or, the Rape Play, prolific playwright Sheila Callaghan’s latest work and Strand Theater founder and artistic director Jayme Kilburn’s last show with the company. (Producer, writer, and performer Rain Pryor will be taking over as artistic director, while Elena Kostakis, former executive director of the Baltimore Theater Alliance, will become managing director.) There isn’t a plot, per se, at least not in the sense of one scene leading logically to another. But the basic outline—like, bare-bones basic—goes like this: Former strippers Valerie (Kerry Brady) and Agnes (Joanna Maria Fortuna) keep a blog on which they post horrifyingly disinterested photos of raunchy men they kill in seedy motel rooms. In an unrelated but parallel motel room, screenwriter Owen (R. Brett Rohrer) struggles to finish a script, and finds inspiration in the girls’ blog. He’s brought his buddy Rodney (Jimmy Heyworth) along for the ride, and Rodney uses the opportunity to indulge in some sadistic, graphic douchebaggery, like pressuring a hotel maid to come back to their room later and “change the sheets.”
You could be forgiven, though, for not understanding that this is what’s going on. The show doesn’t so much start as explode into action, Valerie and Agnes returning to their motel room after a night out, Valerie in patterned neon leggings and a leather vest, Agnes in a blue sequined tube dress pulled down to reveal a bra covered with sparkling rhinestones. Agnes is a fireball, screaming and rubbing her ass all over the john (also played by Heyworth) who’s ordered the two girls for the night. Agnes distracts him with her body while Valerie grabs a gun and mercilessly, thoughtlessly, kills him with a single shot to the skull. After they take their pictures, Valerie starts to upload them to the blog while Agnes engages in general debauchery, pissing the motel room bed and petulantly (and loudly) whining that she’s hungry.
It all starts to unravel from there. The clever staging utilizes two platforms facing each other, representing the two motel rooms, with the audience lined up on either side (which allows you to watch your fellow audience members’ shocked faces). One, where the first scene plays out, is painted a loud pink, with various weapons stuck to the wall; the other is a drab brown. If you’re sharp, you start to tease out that the pink room is fantasy, the brown reality. And so, while Owen generally exists in the real world, he and Rodney occasionally cross into the mindfuck of the alternate world—like in the second scene, in which the first murder is repeated with the roles reversed, ending with Owen hacking Agnes to pieces and ramming a sledgehammer between her legs. Afterward, Owen, back in his room, wonders aloud if the sledgehammer was too much for his script.
Enter Jane Fonda (Leah Raulerson), who serves as a Zen-like unifying force, the only calm presence in an endless reel of madness. She engages the characters in polite exercise routines, and, in one particularly poignant scene, allows Owen to beat her as an outlet for the trauma his obsession with Agnes is beginning to cause.
Confused yet? You’re not alone. But now that you’ve bought your ticket, you must take the ride, and it’s best to just hang on tight and allow whatever you’re seeing to happen—even if you’re seeing Owen in a dress, lipstick painted on his face, getting fingered by an ’80s rock-star version of Rodney with big hair and zebra-print leggings before birthing a baby doll with assistance from Agnes and Valerie. It’s to the cast’s immense credit that they throw themselves wholeheartedly into the absurdity of their roles; this show could be horribly awkward with even a little bit of reservation.
Fortuna as Agnes is the most fun to watch, as she surrenders completely to the no-holds-barred wild rebellion that we all wish we could exercise more often. But each actor truly embodies his or her character’s persona, to the extent that when you see them after the show, Raulerson herself seems comforting and motherly, and you really hate Heyworth for being such a dick. This is a show that forces you to see things you don’t want to see, and think things you don’t want to think, wrapped up in a darkly comedic and unrelentingly graphic package. That Pretty Pretty is a brave show, for playwright, actors, director, crew, and audience—truly stunning, in the most literal sense of the word.