In 1975, performance artist Carolee Schneeman stood on a table and extracted a scroll from her vagina. Unrolling it, she read an attack on the art world’s treatment of women: “If you are a woman (and things are not utterly changed)/they will almost never believe you really did it . . . they will worship you they will ignore you/they will malign you they will pamper you/they will try to take what you did as their own.”
Women in the arts have witnessed some improvements in the past 30 years, but Schneeman’s words still resonate. In September, Theresa Rebeck noted in The Guardian that in New York last season, plays by women made up just 12.6 percent of the total. And as to the roles available to actresses, they too often fall into the categories Shirley MacLaine once condemned: hookers, victims, and doormats.
Two of the three female characters in That Pretty Pretty; Or, The Rape Play—Sheila Callaghan’s funny, scary, messy, and forthrightly feminist new work—are hookers, victims, and doormats. The third is Jane Fonda, and she’s sort of a doormat, too. The play concerns a pair of renegade, incestuous ex-strippers, Agnes (Lisa Joyce) and Valerie (Danielle Slavick), who traverse the country assassinating pro-lifers. Or perhaps they’re merely the fictional creations of Owen (Greg Keller), a screenwriter with a boyish crush on Ms. Fonda (a leotard-clad Annie McNamara).
A program note warns that the play “contains violent episodes and sexual content,” an unusually mild description of the panoply of beatings, murders, and rapes that ensue. Callaghan satirizes the recent portrayal of women by male writers through a series of metafictional scenes—deliberately outdoing the boys in raunchy, profane, and icky sex. It’s remarkable that director Kip Fagan manages to make clear delineations among the various modes the play demands—the extremely fictional, the sort-of fictional, the filmic, the more-or-less real, etc.
Of course, the script necessitates that the actresses succumb to indignities as bad or worse than those supplied by male writers—like a scene of Jell-O wrestling. Callaghan declines to offer a woman-friendly alternative; it’s a troubling play and must have been difficult to write. However, her fictional counterpart, Owen, had no such struggle with his screenplay: As he explains in the scripted audience talkback that concludes the play, he found it easy to depict these desperate, violent, abused women. “Honestly,” Owen says with great humility, “I don’t think of them as ‘female’ characters. I think of them as people. . . . I’m gender-blind.”