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White Privilege Withers Under the Harsh Spotlight of “Capax Infiniti”

The short film was inspired, in part, by the towering mural on the side of the Carlyle Building in downtown Portland of the same name.

At the start of the Theatre Company’s new short film Capax Infiniti, Karen (Laura Faye Smith) declares: “I’m Karen. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Laugh it up. Hey, I was Karen before Karens were Karens, OK?” It’s her way of projecting self-awareness and telling us, “I may be named Karen, but I am not a Karen.”

The central joke of Capax Infiniti is that in the typical sense of the term, Karen is a Karen—she’s a privileged white woman with festering racist views. But what makes the film compelling is that the character simultaneously inspires admiration, disgust and pity, becoming someone who embodies and transcends a cultural stereotype.

Capax Infiniti begins with Karen getting dressed and slathering on lipstick. She’s about to give a virtual keynote address for an organization called Empowered Women Empowering Women, an engagement she seems eminently qualified for. As the founder and CEO of the all-female and female-identified company Capax Infiniti Marketing and Design, she’s a child of the post-Sheryl Sandberg generation, an entrepreneur whose life looks like a lean-in success story.

With self-satisfaction oozing from her voice, Karen frames her life with a mythic origin tale, disdainfully describing what it was like growing up in a trailer and watching her artistic mother reduced to working as a janitor. When Karen broaches the subject of privilege, she says, “I knew we didn’t have it. And I knew I wanted it.”

As Karen tells it, she tried to adapt to the locker-room culture of a male-dominated company. “I had jokes that would make Howard Stern blush,” she recalls fondly. That changed when she spotted Capax Infiniti, the towering mural on the side of the Carlyle Building in downtown Portland that features a woman with her back turned.

Karen says that the mural, by the South African artist Faith47, inspired her to start her company. Yet her façade of virtue gradually disappears and her speech devolves into a racist rant filled with grotesque exclamations like, “And I swear to God, if you say anything about white fragility, I will cut you! There is nothing fragile about me! Nothing!”

Capax Infiniti understands that the concept of Karen—which has become so prevalent that Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot used the term to describe former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany—is problematic. Calling a woman “a Karen” can be a way to call out racism, but it can also be a way to traffic in misogynistic tropes while remaining palatable to progressives.

Smith, writer DeLanna Studi, and director Jen Rowe don’t explicitly address the fact that there’s no male equivalent of a Karen, but they don’t deny the complexity and humanity of their protagonist. They have created a character who is at once a polished promoter of women’s rights, an enraged defender of white privilege, and an emotionally broken soul lost in an ocean of trauma and grief.

The miracle of Capax Infiniti—part of the Theatre Company’s six-part film series the Playwright Initiative: Solo Works—is that it tries to understand Karen without excusing her behavior. We’re invited to weep when she talks about the death of a loved one, but we’re also allowed to cringe at her inability to comprehend that even in poverty, she reaped the rewards of white privilege.

When Karen attempts to convey the struggles of her childhood by claiming, “Trash is trash, no matter the color,” you realize that she’s crippled by one of the worst failings a human being can have: a lack of imagination. That’s not a problem for Smith, Studi and Rowe, whose willingness to investigate nuances that have become lost in the ongoing debates about the ups and downs of so-called cancel culture is the soul of the story.

If Karen were a real person and her speech went viral, she would be deservedly fired from her company and crucified on social media. Capax Infiniti looks beyond that often-told tale by challenging audiences apt to believe that the film is either too compassionate toward Karen or too cruel. Like most great works of art, it will make you uncomfortable in the best sense of the word.

SEE IT: Capax Infiniti streams on Stellar through Oct. 9. Tickets are available at thetheatreco.org/capax-infiniti. $20.