In the first 20 minutes of "Extremities," the Actors Theater of Louisville's offering in the Baltimore international Theater Festival, the audience watches an intruder try to rape a woman alone in a farmhouse. It is the foundation on which the remainder of the play rests, a horrifyingly graphic enactment of man's brutal violence against a woman.
"Extremities" is not for those who are looking for an amusing evening in the theater. It is turbulent, chilling, and thought-provoking. It contains the obscenity of both violence and language. And, while it is flawed by occasionally inappropriate comedy, playwright William Mastrosimone has effectively used the political power of theater, illustrating a point of view with a specific human drama.
The rape is stymied when the victim, Marge, manages to grab a can of insecticide and spray it into her assailant's face. While he is immobilized, she ties him up like a turkey and then locks him into the fireplace by chaining the grate shut. She blindfolds him, and then torments him by throwing ammonia on him and letting him think it is gasoline while she lights matches and tosses them in his cage; burning him with a cigarette; refusing to give him food or water or release him to go to the bathroom.
In her hysterical yet weirdly rational state, she reasons that the police won't believe he attempted to rape her because there is no evidence; thus he will come back to try again. From what he has said, it is clear that he had been watching her, had stolen her mail and observed the schedules of her roommates in order to know when she would be at home alone. She wants him to confess.
When one of her roommates comes home, she convinces her that they should kill the rapist. "It's him or us," she pleads. "Is the world better or worse without him?"
The third roommate arrives, a stolid social worker who talks in liberal jargon. "How do you feel about your situation?" she asks her hysterical roommate in an effort to prevent the rapist, who has been dubbed The Animal, from being killed. She wants to call the police, call a lawyer, give The Animal food and water, treat his wounds.
When the blindfold is taken off, the women find he has been blinded by the insecticide. With their sympathy aroused, they begin to turn on their friend and doubt her story. But in releasing his bonds, they find a knife hanging around his neck. They realize Marge has been telling the truth, he confesses, and she is released from her rage. In taking her revenge, she proves the justice of her actions, although not without the cost of revealing the animal within herself.
Playwright Mastrosimone writes extremely well and he certainly knows how to create tension, although often he dissipates it rudely with flippant jokes that seem misplaced.
The play is not well-served by Paul Owen's set, which is described in the program as "an old farmhouse a few miles from Trenton, New Jersey" but looks more like the living room of a ranch house in a subdivision. The scene changes -- which consist, as we can tell from the noise, of Animal getting in and out of his cage, could have been accomplished more deftly.
It is a play that places heavy demands on the four actors and for the most part, they meet them. There is a certain amount of overacting though, that is sometimes distracting. All the stops are pulled -- the play wouldn't work without that, particularly in the violent scenes between Marge and The Animal, played by Danton Stone. But they sometimes cross that delicate line between Just Right and a Little Too Far, leaving us sometimes worried for the safety of the actors.
Dordana Rashovich as Marge is a coiled spring of steel tension, hysterical yet possessed of the clear vision that madness often brings. Stone is a menacing as footsteps behind you in a dark alley, a whining psychotic who lies as easily as breathing. Kathy Bates is unexpectedly touching in the rather cliched role of the plump, jargon-spouting social worker.
"Extremities" is the only American entry in the theater festival, which ends this weekend. It should be required viewing for anyone who has ever said that no woman gets raped unless she wants to.
:"Extremities," produced by the Actors Theater of Louisville, directed by John Bettenbender, set design by Paul Owen, costume design by Kurt Wilhelm, lighting design by Jeff Hill, sound by John North.
With Gordana Rashovich, Danton Stone, Peggily Price and Kathy Bates.