Extremities - Also Known As Theatre
Extremities – AKA Theatre
Review by James Wilkinson
Extremities is presented by AKA Theatre. Written by William Mastrosimone. Directed by Alexandra Smith. Scenic/Properties Designer: Erin McCarthy. Costume Designer: Heather Oshinsky. Fight Choreographer: Jessica Scout Malone.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that we’d entered Sam Shepard country. The playing space for Extremities, AKA Theatre’s new production, just feels a bit off in the way that recalls the plays of the late American master. The furniture looks dated and is sparsely placed around the stage. There’s very little in the way of color or a sense of life. The one houseplant visible has lost most of its leaves and is barely hanging on to what’s left. An ashtray, half-full with cigarette butts sits on the coffee table. There’s a kitchen set-up off to the side with a gas burner stove that looks like it has seen better days. You just can’t quite put your finger on what’s causing the sense of foreboding in the air (eventually we’ll learn that the play takes place in the early 1980’s....Take that however you want…). When the characters eventually come onstage, even they seem to have walked right out of a Shepard play. There’s a fast-talking farmhand (complete with cowboy belt buckle) with a grin a mile wide that just makes your skin crawl. Something dangerous is on its way.
The script is not by Shepard, (the playwright is William Mastrosimone), though given that it was written around the time Shepard burst onto the American theatre scene, I’d be surprised if his aesthetic wasn’t bouncing around somewhere in the back of the Mastrosimone’s mind. It’s a difficult play to recommend to audiences, not because AKA Theatre’s production is lacking in quality, (the production is really quite brilliant), but because of the brutal and punishing way that the subject matter knowledge of sexual assault is presented (audiences be forewarned). However, I’d argue (and that’s my job here) that AKA’s production more than earns its right to be brutal. This is a production that’s looking to shake up the audience in a big way and make no mistake, it comes at you with all of the force it can muster. It feels somewhat perverse to call a play like this thrilling, but when a theater company nails a play the way AKA Theatre nails this one, the result is thrilling.
On a morning in September, Marjorie (Alissa Cordeiro) is alone in her house and a man walks in (Padraig Sullivan). He says he’s there to meet another man named Joe, but doesn’t seem too put off when Marjoire tells him there’s no Joe that lives there. No matter, he’ll wait. Marjorie tells him to leave and he asks to use the phone. She again tells him to leave and he rips the phone out of the wall. In an extended and excruciatingly choreographed scene, the man then attempts to rape Marjorie. She manages to subdue him (which I guess is somewhat of a spoiler, but there’s no way to discuss the play without mentioning it and it’s in the show synopsis), and now isn’t sure what to do. There’s no evidence of the attempted rape, so it’ll be her word against his and she doesn’t like those odds. Then her roommates return home and all they see is a restrained man and their friend standing over him. Who will they believe?
The play presents a number of challenges that I think director Alexandra Smith and her creative team manage to navigate rather well. There’s a very fine tightrope for them to walk here. Although I do think that Shepard was an influence on the play, Extremities comes nowhere near his poetic sensibilities. There’s a kind of pulpy, exploitation-film-style edge to the proceedings, especially in the beginning. Characters speak with a bluntness as though they’re trying to get the story out. Had the production leaned into this sensibility too hard, it would have derailed into a trashy mess. Thankfully, Smith knew when to pull back. She keeps the play grounded and also manages to find the vein of wicked black humor that runs through it. The opening scene between Marjorie and the intruder is expertly choreographed. It feels like it lasts an eternity (because it does). Everything plays out in real time and all the while, we’re not given the chance to turn away. The play is staged in a thrust seating arrangement so that the audience is only a few feet away from the actors. When things get rough, there’s nothing you can do but squirm in your seat.
The acting team is phenomenal. Alissa Cordeiro as Marjorie and Padraig Sullivan as the intruder both have character arcs that leave them broken by the end of the play and it’s incredible to see how both navigate those reversals of fortune. The changes seem to happen so incrementally, so subtlety, as to be almost non-existent. It’s not until the end that you realize just how far they’ve gone. When Sullivan first swaggers onstage he has goofy grin that somehow projects charm and menace. Cordeiro manages to make us feel her desperation as her character’s day spirals out of control. Although their characters don’t make it onstage until much later in the play, Srin Chakrovorty and Amanda Dane as Marjorie’s roommates Terry and Patricia, are also great in what are rather tricky parts. Because these are Marjorie’s friends, the audience expects them to side with her when they come home and see what’s been happening. That they don’t do this is devastating and Chakrovorty and Dane don’t shy away from the nastiness their characters eventually reveal.
Many audience members may question why they need to see a play deal with this subject matter in this way. I’ve always been of the belief though, that if there’s a behavior that people do in the real world, then it’s fair game for artists to examine (and I listen to enough true crime podcasts to know that sexual assaults and home invasions happen all too often). The purpose of Extremities isn’t to navel gaze at sexual assault. It’s to examine our responses to it and bring us into the experiences of the people it affects. Human nature, warts and all.
Extremities is presented by AKA Theatre at First Church Cambridge, March 28-April 13, 2019
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