That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play has barely begun, and there's already the corpse of a Republican sprawled out on a hotel bed.
Agnes (Jessica Tidd) and Valerie (Jessica Hillenbrand) are two ex-strippers who go to pro-life conventions posing as prostitutes, kill the men who hire them and then write about it on their blog. They've just shot Rodney (Blake Stone), and now they've propped up his corpse so Valerie can film Agnes moving his lips while voicing over "Holy fucking shit, I love fetuses."
It sounds excessive, and it is. With seriously dark humor, Sheila Callaghan's 2009 play is a shock-drama parody and a critique of the way women are portrayed in pop culture: Valerie is an angry, man-hating lesbian; Agnes is a baby-voiced party girl; and they both strut around the stage in giant heels and skimpy outfits.
The play unfolds in a series of strange, gender politics and shock-humor charged vignettes. The set is disorienting, too. Stage right, there's the hotel bed. Stage left, there's an office desk and a stripper pole. But most of the play happens in the setless center stage, so the scenes feel like moments outside of reality.
For a while, the social commentary is the only clue to what's really going on in the play. After Agnes and Valerie's scene in the hotel room, Jane Fonda (Jacquelle Davis) jogs onto the stage wearing sweatbands and a blue leotard. It seems like a total non-sequitur until Jane tells the audience with a giant smile and perky posture, "I have loads of confidence, except when I feel abused; then I just lift my chin and take it."
In a weird, fugue-like structure, lines and even entire scenes are repeated. After the first of many Jane Fonda cameos, the scene where Valerie and Agnes murder Rodney replays. But this time, it's Owen and Rodney who murder Agnes. "You aren't really sisters, are you?" becomes "You aren't really brothers, are you?" Valerie told Agnes it wasn't worth having sex with Rodney before killing him because he had a "cashew dick," and now Owen tells Rodney it wasn't worth having sex with Agnes because "she's selfish, comes too fast and she's a liar." But Agnes' murder is far more violent than Rodney's: After he shoots her, Owen stabs and beats Agnes' corpse with a hammer, all while her dead body is face down in Rodney's crotch.
The fact that you have no idea what's going to happen next—let alone why what's already happened has happened—is part of what makes the play so engaging. It's also carried along by the equally campy and over-dramatic performances from all four actors, which manage to be deeply funny in a way that only makes the play seem more savage.
Eventually, it all comes together. In an ingenuous scene, the structure of the play retroactively makes sense, while also leaving loose ends you're forced to think about.
At that point, the play still has another 30 minutes or so to go. After the mystery is gone, That Pretty Pretty begins to feel like it's just belaboring one very specific point. Instead of making the plot seem more maze-like, the repeated phrases—about women who embody "dignity" by keeping their "chin up" when faced with anything from subtle misogyny to rape—begin to feel like they sum up the whole play.
It's a point worth belaboring. But if you're going to keep thinking about a play, it helps to be left wondering.
SEE IT: That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play is at Defunkt Theatre, 4319 SE Hawthorne Blvd., defunkttheatre.com. 7:30 pm Thursday-Sunday, through June 10. $10-$25.