“An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scottishman walk into a bar.” That’s a joke that could go in almost any direction but in Alice Birch’s “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.” the British playwright’s US debut at Soho Rep, it can only have one, point-blank punch line: “Rape!”
Birch’s play, a 2015 commission by the Royal Shakespeare Company that is a series of exhortations to feminist revolution inspired by Valerie Solanus’ “SCUM Manifesto,” isn’t afraid to call a cat a cat, or any kind of aggression on women what it is: in just over an hour, women are pressured, intimidated, abused, threatened, ignored, fetishized, sexualized and objectified in scores of ways. But although a central scene treats domestic violence, Birch is less concerned with acts of physical aggression on women than on the more insidious and pervasive linguistic humiliations they endure, even in their most intimate relations. Fittingly, “Revolt” begins with a bit of foreplay, as a man tells a woman about his sexual feelings for her. What a surprise to him when she rejects every word he finds to seduce her, on the grounds that his focus is on his own pleasure and never hers. Ditto in scene two where the language around courtship and marriage is raked over the coals: a marriage proposal is compared to a suggestion to bomb a convenience store, so demeaning is it to the spurned groom’s intended.
This kind of extremely close reading of the language we use unquestioningly every day is where “Revolt” is at its most useful for jarring us out of our complacency. Why should women still be “asked for” in marriage since we never get to negotiate the same deal for a future husband? Why are women made love to, as passive receivers of male desire, and never vice versa?
Birch has other concerns as well, however, which she makes explicit with provocative titles projected during each scene: after Revolutionize the Language comes Revolutionize the World (“Don’t marry”), the Work (“Engage with it”) and the Body (“Make it sexually available constantly”). Under the latter heading, a woman who has been caught exposing herself in the produce aisle of a grocery store explains her motives, which could be euphemistically summed up as a willful acceptance of the media’s hyper-sexualized depiction of women. The next vignette, taking on domestic violence, drives home its point about the psychological effects of abuse with some highly symbolic blood-letting. It’s an uncomfortable scene but it fits logically into Birch’s composition, which progressively ups the ante to take audiences to the limits of the grotesque and the absurd, where one imagines the ghost of Sarah Kane – one of Birch’s acknowledged influences – looking on approvingly.
But one can also rightfully wonder where Birch’s “revolt” is leading. Are her injunctions to not marry or reproduce and to wipe out all men (in the final dystopic – or utopic? – scene) meant to be taken seriously? Given the playwright’s recent motherhood, one has to conclude they are not. Yet the play’s final vociferations leave absolutely no room for hope, or even for cohabiting with the other half of the world’s population.
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s response is to impose a comforting realism where Birch’s notes provide none; rather, they demand the strictest minimalism. As a prelude to that central scene, a very long moment is spent laying a pretty lunch table and moving many potted trees downstage. If the resulting plastic jungle that crowds in the actors is meant to feel menacing, the time spent constructing it, not to mention the artifice itself, is like a cold shower on the building tension. On the other hand, Blain-Cruz places the final scene in a futuristic, adventure film aesthetic that feels like it ought to be ironic, but isn’t. Birch also specifies that the work should be presented by six actors, a directive not respected in this production, and while Daniel Abeles, Molly Bernard, Eboni Booth and Jennifer Ikeda are serviceable in their roles, their quartet feels too tidy to hit the high notes of Birch’s full-throttled scream of anger.
As invigorating as Birch’s writing can be as she calls out behavior and language we are accustomed to taking for granted (still, almost 70 years after The Second Sex), “Revolt”‘s extremes leave us at an impasse that we understand to be deliberate, but which is no less frustrating. If the purpose of feminism is empowerment of the female, “Revolt”’s reductionism would have us limit women’s choices, which is the antithesis of empowerment, while its politics of exclusion (kill all the men!) ignores the fact that women are equal agents in the merchandizing of the female body, as any observer of pop music, film, advertising and fashion must know.
As I rode the subway home from “Revolt,” a man next to me took interest in the notes I was writing. Was it poetry, and would I tell him what it was about, he wanted to know, leaning in with a smile? It was none of his business, I told him as politely as I could, but that was not the response he felt he deserved, as he let me know much less nicely. Earlier in the day, on my way to work, a man I passed thought a girl riding a bike merited a patronizing comment. As long as women have to field unsolicited attention from men precisely because of their gender, Birch’s anger is justified and necessary. I just wish her thinking went so far as to consider solutions we can use in our commutes and not just in our dreams.