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Theatre in Review: Good Friday (The Flea Theater)

Caturah Brown, Erin Noll, Raiane Cantisano, Dolores Avery. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Good Friday begins with a trigger warning of sorts, informing audience members that some scenes may be intense and upsetting. But really, they needn't have bothered: The play carries with it only the most tenuous connection to the real world and it treats some appalling facts in utterly fanciful ways. The playwright, Kristiana Rae Colón, wants to say something honest and disturbing about the horrors of campus rape, but her preferred format -- a wild-eyed, gun-waving melodama -- does the cause of seriousness no favors.

The action unfolds in a college classroom where an all-female discussion of A Doll's House is winding up. This passage is hard to assess, since everyone speaks at once, spitting out fragments of dialogue and, as directed by Sherri Eden Barber, it comes off as one vast cacophony. (That this may be intentional doesn't make it any easier on the ears.) Adding to the hubbub, one of the young ladies, Crete, unexpectedly begins to menstruate. (Perhaps the playwright's shift key was broken, as there isn't a single capital letter in the script, but, for the purposes of clarity, I am using such when reproducing character names and bits of dialogue.) This episode nearly unhinges the pious, virginal Sophia, especially when Ariel, another student, chases her around the room with a chair covered with Crete's blood, adding that she "gotta let go all those patriarchal stigmas about aunt flow." Sophia, who must belong to the same religious sect as Stephen King's Carrie, says, "You can't take holy communion while unclean." "Right," says Ariel, "and the Easter Bunny won't leave you a basket if your snatch is bleeding." No matter what happens in Good Friday -- and quite a lot does -- the characters speak in the same telegraphic, semi-wisecracking manner.

This topic is quickly dropped when gunfire is heard and it becomes clear that a school shooting situation is taking place outside in the quad. A glance through the window reveals dead bodies littering the campus. The women barricade themselves in, except for Crete, who, trying to clean herself up, is hiding in a nearby bathroom stall. Ultimately, the shooter breaks in and, to everyone's surprise, is revealed to be a woman they all know; also, one of her apparent victims turns out to be the mastermind. Never mind that the instance of women running amok with guns is vanishingly low; the rest of Good Friday combines a hostage situation with a series of weirdly out-of-place women's studies debates and rants about the toxic effects of rape culture.

I won't reveal exactly why Emme, the killer, has gone on her rampage, but let's just say that there's a reason why most of the soccer team is dead. And Crete, who dated one of the players, suddenly looks a lot less innocent after a certain piece of information slips out. But even these interesting developments are lost in the general hysteria, as characters thrown into a terrifying life-or-death situation are tasked with acting in the most operatic and unbelievable ways. Sophia dips her hand in blood and paints a cross on the wall. Asha, the teacher -- perhaps playing for time, but who can tell? -- offers to interview Emme for her thesis, "In the Hands of Women: Women in Colonial and Post-Colonial Liberation Struggles." (This may be one reason why Natalie, Emme's henchwoman, tells Asha, "I know you're just an adjunct honey but your classroom management skills leave much to be desired.") Asha, who can't keep her mind off that thesis, bucks up the others with "I'm going to include you all in the acknowledgments."

And so it goes, with seemingly everything but survival on the characters' minds. When Asha frets that the police are taking an awfully long time to show up -- a concern I heartily seconded -- Ariel bravely asserts, "I mean but who needs a SWAT team when you have a battalion of four free thinking independent women! who have broken the chains of their sexual oppression and conquered the need for men with guns to rescue them." This upsets Asha, who replies, "What have I taught that makes you think? Being free doesn't mean being superwoman." Later, most of them team up to help Emme's message go viral, complete with the handle #GoodFriday, which gets painted on a classroom window in -- yes -- blood. Kinzie, another hostage, who insists "I don't promote violence," tells Emme she needs to tell her story "before the media sanitizes the message and paints you as crazy." Yes, what a mistake that would be. All this effort finally makes Ariel snap, "You bitches love to hear yourself talk."

Colón says in an introduction to the play that she conceived the play's impacted, slang-inflected style as an homage to Ntozake Shange. But Shange's plays serve their poetry straight up, in a highly presentation format, allowing one to focus on the words and the story being told. By yoking her text to such breathless dramatics, Colón devalues her colorful, distinctive writing style. Good Friday wants to shock the audience with its portrayal of female rage; the result is closer to a Roger Corman exploitation film of the 1970s.

It's difficult to say much about the performances since the action is so frenetic and the characters' motivations so scant, but Caturah Brown, as Kinzie, shows real presence and a way with a line, and Erin Noll brings a surprising sense of conviction to Asha, no matter what unbelievable things she is made to do. The role of Natalie is a villain's villain, and Pearl Shin takes to the assignment, torturing the other characters with relish. The production design is highly creative, with Kate Noll's set design often serving as a surface for Jess Medenbach's video imagery of women skeptically probing their bodies, news reports, and, most effectively, a montage of women online, speaking Emme's confession for her. Megan Deets Culley's sound design effortlessly moves gunshot effects and footfalls around the room, adding to the sense of imminent peril. Paige Seber's lighting and Christelle Matous' costumes are solid, too.

Good Friday ends with a video epilogue, set a few years later, in which young women, having learned nothing from history, make silly jokes about the events of the play. Colón might do well to look at those parts of her script that are likely to inspire unintended laughter in real time. -- David Barbour

(27 February 2019)

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