Review: 'Collective Rage' at Actors' Theatre is Downright Revolutionary

“Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties” is so provocative we can’t put in print the play’s full title.

Well, maybe we could, but you can just read it here.

This, in my estimation, is a good thing. Not that we can’t print it, but that we have a local theatre in Southwest Michigan producing theatre too edgy for mainstream media to represent literally.

Though Jen Silverman’s 2016 play isn’t brand new, it remains delightfully shocking to witness five women speak candidly about their bodies, their relationships, their sex lives. And though it’s certainly a feminist enterprise to unapologetically and without fanfare focus on women telling their own stories, this play is a hysterical comedy that is mercifully not dogmatic. The personal is political, indeed, especially amid a cultural landscape wherein women’s freedoms and bodies are legislated. However, there is a distinct pleasure in witnessing women rage and love and explore their bodies and make art and bad choices without calling attention to the fact that to do so is itself a political act.

And so it follows that Actor’s Theatre’s production of “Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties” is a distinct pleasure. Boldly directed by Bridgett Vanderhoof, this witty, fast-paced 90-minute show unfolds with five characters (yes, each one named Betty) in 19 tightly-written, quick scenes that are, at turns, laugh-out-loud funny, piquant, and moving.

Betty 1 (Sarah Denick) is a “rich, gluten-free, vegetarian alcoholic” who wears a sweater tied around her shoulders, throws demure dinner parties, and declares herself outraged and the world awful, in no small part, it turns out, because her husband is cheating on her.

Betty 2 (Maureen O’Brien) runs in the same circles as Betty 1, and she’s not only in a sexless marriage, but she has to act out her feelings with a puppet because she has no real friends; and to make matters worse, she’s also entirely unacquainted with her genitalia until Betty 3 (Gabi Salazar), a “high-femme super queer” aspiring influencer who works at Sephora, throws her own dinner party after being both shamed and bored at Betty 1’s event, and gives her a hand mirror so that she can see what’s between her own legs.

(The ways these characters unabashedly desire, pursue, admire, and pleasure the feline-named what’s between their legs is such a major driving force here that one in particular becomes its own animated character that sings with ukulele accompaniment.)

Betty 4 (Cait Portko) proclaims herself “as butch as you can get” and loves Betty 3 almost as much as working on her truck even though it’s unrequited. Betty 5 (Yesenia Cotto), a “gender-nonconforming masculine-presenting female-bodied individual” who is “comfortable with female pronouns”, also likes working on her truck alongside Betty 4, and she’s also a boxing gym owner who’s recently gotten out of rehab.

Their worlds collide when Betty 3 is inspired by her first night at the “thea-tah” to direct her own show based loosely on “Pyramus and Thisbe”, the play within a play in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” she calls “Burmese and Frisbee” or “Penis and Thursday” and casts all the Bettys, each of whom in the process undergo their own seemingly magical transformations.

There’s certainly an element of satire of theatre itself as these fabulous characters bump up against and influence one another toward self discovery amid the implosion of their play within the play.

The actors have terrific comedic timing and each create a distinct character, with Cait Portko’s Betty emerging as the most convincing of the lot. They play together beautifully and individually on a simple, understated set with lights by Josh King that effectively delineate space. Delightful costumes by Bridgett Vanderhoof and effective props by Danielle Armstrong are other appealing technical elements that tremendously aid the storytelling.

“Collective Rage” is thought-provoking, hilarious, and downright revolutionary. Actor’s Theatre is to be commended for producing new, transformative theatre for which its audiences show appreciation through their uproarious laughter for the characters (and situations) with whom they clearly resonate. In essence, they’re quite literally saying women’s bodies, relationships, lives as they see and experience them, deserve to be represented truthfully and enjoyed.

Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties
Actors Theatre
Sept. 14-17