It's hard to find a play about feminism that would be controversial in Berkeley, California. But Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo, which this week begins previews at the Aurora Theatre Company, might just qualify. The play follows Catherine (Marilee Talkington), an academic celebrity who faces a midlife crisis: stay the rock star course, or seek comfortable companionship? We talked to the show's San Francisco- and Seattle-based director Desdemona Chiang, who makes her Aurora debut with this production, about her connection to the project and the questions it poses about contemporary feminism.
SF Weekly: The two lines from the play that really struck us are: "What feminism has arguably left unfinished is how two empowered people are supposed to negotiate all this fantastic equality," and, "In a relationship between two people, you can't both go first." Can you unpack those a bit?
Desdemona Chiang: There is an assumption that the woman will not go first. I'm no sociologist, but chances are — even in this age of women in the workforce — when that decision happens to start a family and someone has to feed the baby, without acknowledging any alternative, the mother stays home. If you want to make room for women in the workplace, you have to make room for men in the home. I don't really see guys out there being like, "All right, gentlemen, let's figure out how to make our home work." Guys don't have this problem. That's an inherent imbalance in the social structure in America. The idea is that it's the woman's job to take care of both, and what's challenging for women right now is our social shame in not being able to do both.
Multiple scenes of the play are staged as classes on Betty Friedan, Phyllis Schlafly, and other thinkers. Was it challenging to not make those moments feel pedantic?
The question I was asking is, "Why is Catherine teaching feminism? Why is Gwen taking the class? Why is Avery taking the class?" Even though she's talking about Schlafly, she's really talking about herself. When Avery's talking about slasher films, the subtext is how she's affected by it. It's not just information; it's the opinion about the information.
How did you get involved with this project?
[Aurora Theatre artistic director] Tom Ross and I have been back and forth about my working at the Aurora. He came to me with this script earlier this spring. I read it, and I thought, "Yeah... I have questions about it — a lot of questions."
What kinds of questions?
At first I was like, "Okay, so Catherine's this hotshot, career-driven rock star, and she's settling for this schmuck? Really? That's the narrative we want to put forth? That she's willing to give up everything she's worked for because of this pot-smoking porn addict, because she doesn't want to be alone? That's a shitty narrative." And then I thought, "That's legitimate. There are a number of strong women I know who, deep down inside, are afraid of being alone, who are 45 and panicking that they don't have kids, but professionally, they're established, they're confident, they're intelligent, they're beautiful."
But if the play adheres to some tropes — for instance, pitting a career woman and a homemaker against each other — it also celebrates female bonding, which, unfortunately, is rare in theater.
Deep down inside, [Catherine's] fear is about losing her mother: "My mother's going to die. She has loved me like no one else has ever loved me, and when she's gone, no one will ever love me like that." For me, that opens [the play] up wider to what it means to be afraid of loss and death, as opposed to being afraid of being single.
That part of the play felt like more of an afterthought to me. Why did it mean so much to you?
I'm an only child. I was raised by a single mom. I'm turning 35 next year. My mom has always said, "Look out for you. You don't need a man. Get your career. Men will come and go, but you are always you." My mom is now in her 60s, and I have a grandmother. We have a very strong matriarchal lineage in my family. To this day, I go to the doctor: my emergency contact? My mom. The parental dependency is a little embarrassing. But there's that monologue Catherine has at the end of the play where she says, "There was a hurricane threatening ... two states away, but she — my mother — kept calling me." That's always been my way into the play. I think there's something in the relationship women have with each other as a bigger source of strength than our romantic, heterosexual relationships with men. The man might be our partner, our provider, but when it comes down to baring our soul and feeling like we're understood — it's always "my ladies, my gals!"