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Theatre in Review: Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. (Soho Rep)

Eboni Booth (front) Jennifer Ikeda. Photo Julieta Cervantes.

Alice Birch is a new kind of playwright: She hates words. Well, maybe that's putting it too strongly: Let's say she distrusts words, regarding them with poisonous suspicion. In her view, they are like wicked, unruly children who must be brought to heel if we are ever to live in a decent civilization. This is made evident in Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., which consists of a series of exchanges in which everyday conversational transactions are subjected to such withering analysis that they break down altogether.

For example, the actor Daniel Abeles turns his romantic gaze on Molly Bernard, carpet-bombing her with endearments that she bats away like so many flies -- that is, when she can get a word in edgewise. "All through dinner," he says, "all I could think about was getting you home and making love to you -- the only thought in my head the whole way through that fucking cheese course was that mole on your jaw." "You ate an enormous amount of cheese," she says, clinically. "I was beginning to feel worried. I was considering expressing concern. You physically put me off cheese. I could barely finish my watermelon." Undeterred, he moves forward, offering his vision of them making love. He imagines peeling her dress off, causing her to smirk. "Don't laugh," he begs. "Not laughing, but I'm also not a potato," she notes. A comment about her spreading her legs ends up in a lengthy negotiation, ending with her asking, "Could we not say spread? Sort of sounds like margarine." As the discussion turns more graphically sexual, it also becomes more fraught, with Bernard countering Abeles' mounting aggression, announcing, "I am blanketing and locking you and draining the life out of you with my massive, structured, beautifully built, almighty vagina." There's more, but let's just say that this is one date night that ends in a draw.

Abeles and Jennifer Ikeda appear as a couple whose relationship is destabilized by his proposal of marriage. Clearly, she wasn't expecting such an offer; as she pitilessly describes it, "This is just me expressing how I'm feeling: Imagine if I one day -- and this is it -- one day waltzed in and was like: Sweet pea. Honey. Nightingale of mine and heart's desire. I love you. I love you to the edges of the earth and back. I love you, body and heart and soul. I love you and I think, to express this love, we should go and blow up the local Stop & Shop. And then I presented you with a massive bomb on a vest on bended knee." Don't expect to hear wedding bells for this pair.

Bernard is on the receiving end in another sketch, as a human resources specialist interviewing an employee, played by Eboni Booth. The problem is, Booth no longer wants to come to work on Mondays: "I want to get more sleep," she adds by way of explanation. Bernard, who probes Booth for medical conditions ranging from pregnancy to mental breakdown, begins offering an array of perks to make it "a fun working environment." These include a $4,000 "work handbag," spa days, and an on-site bar. Booth, irritated, says, "Just because you charge your employees for a beer in the building in which they work and then encourage them to return to their jobs does not make it a real thing." There is also a power struggle over Booth's habit of smiling, with Bernard insisting, "While you're in here I own your face." Slipping even more into the surreal is a sketch in which Abeles and Ikeda, as managers at a Whole Foods-style emporium, are trying to get a straight answer out of Bernard as to what she was doing "lying in aisle seven with your dress over your head." ("You will have to pay for those melons," she is told. "We literally cannot resell those melons.") The discussion becomes abusive, with Bernard's body described in ever-uglier terms; she absorbs it all in her flat-affect stride, countering with a grisly catalog of acts calculated to maim her physical self, clearly as a way of frustrating the unwanted sexual attention of others, but concluding that there is "no fortification strong enough," that she is choosing to "lie down and become available. Constantly. Want to be entered. Constantly. It cannot be an invasion if you want it."

I should add that each of these episodes comes with a projected title. In order, they are "Revolutionize the Language (Invert it)," "Revolutionize the World (Don't Marry)," "Revolutionize the Work (Engage With It)," and "Revolutionize the Body (Make it Sexually Available. Constantly)." The action also takes progressively darker turns, especially in the reunion of a woman, her adult daughter, and young granddaughter, which offers wildly competing versions of the family history, ending in grotesque acts designed to cut off conversation altogether. The play climaxes with a descent into chaos and a violent coup de théâtre that leaves the audience in stunned silence.

In Birch's view, words can be agents of treachery, tools of aggression, and maybe even weapons of mass destruction, but, where others merely want to eliminate the obvious epithets and slurs, she goes a step further, arguing that the assumptions of an unjust society are built into the very DNA of our language -- and, as a result, massive acts of subversion are necessary. Thus, in each encounter, she takes a crowbar to standard English usage, turning the simple act of communication into a minefield from which no one emerges unscarred. Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is a thoroughly abstract exercise -- there is no overarching narrative and no real characters -- but the author's steady, unforgiving gaze, her ruthless way with clichés, and her radar-like ability to unearth buried notions about class and prejudice command one's attention, with alternately hilarious and horrifying results.

A work like this requires an exceptionally nimble cast if it isn't going to fall flat, and all four performers, under the superbly controlled direction of Lileana Blain-Cruz, repeatedly deliver, no matter the assignment. They are especially good at shifting the tone from the revue-sketch comedy of the early scenes to the startlingly bleak conclusions arrived at later on. Also, one attends a production at Soho Rep expecting the space to be totally transformed, and so it is here: Adam Rigg has designed an open playing area surrounded by white walls, the main props being a vast array of potted plants that come into play about halfway through the short 65-minute running time. Yi Zhao's lighting ranges from simple bright washes to nerve-jangling blinder cues delivered in concert with Palmer Hefferan's room-rattling bursts of sound effects. Kaye Voyce's costumes consist of well-chosen leisure wear that allow for fast transitions between scenes.

If all this sounds daunting, well, in a way it is. Birch is a bomb-thrower, a provocateur with no interest in taking prisoners. But her ideas are powerful ones and her X-ray approach to common language may leave you shaken, certainly choosing your words more carefully. Such fierce originality is exhilarating. This may be the most audacious debut by a British playwright in New York since Caryl Churchill first took a scalpel to received ideas about sex roles and gender in Cloud 9. -- David Barbour

(20 April 2016)

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