Wednesday, September 13, 2017

65 (2017-2018): Review: THE RAPE OF THE SABINE WOMEN, BY GRACE B. MATTHIAS (seen September 12, 2017)

“When in Rome . . . “

In essence, Michael Yates Crowley’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, by Grace B. Matthias, the Playwrights Realm’s new production at the Duke on 42nd Street, is a simple, familiar story. A small-town, none-too-bright, 15-year-old high school girl, Grace B. Matthias (Susannah Perkins), goes to a secluded spot with her crush, the football-star classmate Jeff (Doug Harris), gets drunk, passes out, is nonviolently raped, continues to seek the boy’s affection, and testifies at his ensuing trial.

Susannah Perkins, Jeena Yi. Photo: Daniel J. Vasquez.
But Crowley has bigger fish to fry, being concerned not so much with this particular case but with the larger issue of our “rape culture.” The program devotes significant space to the subject, including sources to consult. The story’s broad outlines are familiar from incidents like 2012’s Steubenville case (whose influence Crowley acknowledges), where the accused seemed to gain more sympathy than the victims.
Eva Kaminsky, Susannah Perkins. Photo: Daniel J. Vasquez.
Crowley, however, gussies it up with numerous distractions, like exposing the circumstances of Grace’s experience through constant flashbacks and flash forwards; everything occurs in the symbolic arena of a generic high school auditorium/cum gymnasium, in front of and on a raised, curtained stage, well-recreated by designer Arnulfo Maldonado and excellently lit by Barbara Samuels. 
Andy Lucien, Susannah Perkins, Jeff Biehl, Jeena Yi, Eva Kaminsky. Photo: Daniel J. Vasquez.
This allows a versatile supporting cast to play multiple stereotypes representing those elements in the community who contribute to the circumstances that lead to rape and subsequently misunderstand or even dismiss it when it happens. These include the media, for example, represented by the News (Chris Carey), an announcer who consistently interrupts the action with innocuous headlines and commentary; Wikipedia, the not necessarily accurate source of all necessary information, personified by most of the cast; the educational system, in the persons of a history teacher (Andy Lucien) and an impatient, otherwise preoccupied guidance counselor (Eva Kaminsky); the church, embodied by an everyone’s-a-sinner preacher (Lucien), played in fiery, revivalist style; and the law, represented by an attorney (Jeff Biehl) more interested in winning than eliciting the truth.
Susannah Perkins, Doug Harris. Photo: Daniel J. Vasquez.
There are also an airheaded cheerleader, Monica (Jeena Yi), Grace’s BFF, and two high school football stars in the football-crazy school; one is Jeff, the other his jealous, bullying buddy, Bobby (Alex Breaux), calling everything gay (art, poetry, etc.) as a mask for his own uncertain sexuality (Crowley himself is gay); and the macho fire chief (Biehl), Jeff’s dad. And then there are the Romans.
Doug Harris, Alex Breaux. Photo: Daniel J. Vasquez.
Crowley, you see, expands the rape issue by tying the events to the story of the rape of the Sabine women, which figured in the origins of Rome. The introduction by Grace’s teacher of Jacques-Louis David’s 1799 painting, “The Intervention of the Sabine Women,” sparks discussion of the historical situation, which has been interpreted as not being rape at all because the women forgave the men and married them, The relationship of Grace’s assault to Rome is further heightened by the football team’s being called the Romans, while everyone wears tunics and togas to the school’s costume ball. There’s even a visit from Hersilia (Yi), Queen of Rome, singing (very well, be it noted) Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.”
Jeena Yi, Susannah Perkins. Photo: Daniel J. Vasquez.
The song is well chosen because throughout the play Grace keeps insisting she wants to become a fire fighter, only for her goal to be continually mocked as impossible. It’s all a metaphor, of course, partly because of the fire that Grace wants to quench and partly because it satirizes the macho culture firefighting embodies, while sparking thoughts regarding appropriate roles for women in modern society.
Company of The Rape of the Sabine Women. Photo: Daniel J. Vasquez.
Crowley’s characters are all comically off-kilter but their extreme attitudes and language, while occasionally amusing, tend to blur whatever the play wants to say about the historical persistence of rape. The play’s exaggerations, with everyone playing their roles at full blast, weaken any argument Crowley may be making, and become more about their own theatricality than what they’re saying. While Grace’s rape may represent a certain kind of male on female sexual abuse, I’m not convinced it’s the best example for the case he’s making.
Alex Breaux, Doug Harris, Jeena Yi, Andy Lucien, Jeff Biehl. Photo: Daniel J. Vasquez.
Tyne Rafaeli’s highly creative staging, with its numerous transitions and costume changes (kudos to costumer Àsta Bennie Hostetter), moves with speed and grace, benefitting from Mikaal Sulaiman’s expert soundscape; however, except for a few scenes, she fails to sufficiently orchestrate the tendency of the energetic actors to shout. Which isn’t to deny that they all offer sharp performances of their cartoonish roles.
Andy Lucien, Susannah Perkins, Doug Harris, Alex Breaux, Jeff Biehl. Photo: Daniel J. Vasquez.
Grace is superbly performed by Perkins, who perfectly captures the girl’s naïveté, ignorance, and vulnerability; as written, though, Grace—absent father, always working or sleeping mother—is too simplistic to gain much sympathy. When, at the end, she delivers a potent classroom speech that shows how far she’s grown, it’s difficult to accept it as coming from the seemingly clueless girl we’ve been watching until then.

Also unusually impressive is Jeena Yi who, as Monica, embodies with delicious precision the talky juvenility of a Valley Girl type; later, she makes a remarkable transition to Hersilia in which there’s not a trace of the silly teenager.

The Rape of the Sabine Women . . . deals with an issue of vital importance. Apart from its fine performances, though, this hour and 40-minute play doesn’t really succeed in what it’s attempting to do but it sure deserves credit for trying.


The Duke on 42nd Street
229 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through September 23