William Mastrosimone chose well when he titled his play about sexual assault "Extremities." It's gruesomely strong stuff.
In 1981, when "Extremities" was presented at Center Stage as part of Baltimore's International Theater Festival, my companion turned to me at intermission and asked if it was absolutely necessary for me to see the entire play. When I told him it was, he sat out the second act in the lobby.
A different companion accompanied me to the current production at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, but part-way through the first scene, I noticed that she had shrunk so far back in her seat, she was practically in the next row.
Yet despite Joel Mason's convincingly brutal fight choreography, this production is hardly an exercise in gratuitous violence. As directed by Rodney Bonds, it succeeds in being powerful and responsible at the same time.
The plot is every woman's worst nightmare: Marjorie, a woman home alone, leaves a door unlocked, and a stranger strides in and attacks her in broad daylight. It turns out he's been watching the house, knows she has two roommates and plans to make them his next victims.
A reprint of the playwright's notes to the published script accompanies the Spotlighters program. In the notes, Mastrosimone writes that the impetus for the play came from a chance meeting with a rape victim who told him there was a moment during the attack when she could have fought back but was paralyzed with fear.
Although the details differ, "Extremities" gives that victim a second chance.
Much of the power of Bonds' production derives from the layered performances of Janise Bonds (the director's wife) as Marjorie and Carlos del Valle as her vicious, manipulative attacker. In "Extremities," Mastrosimone demonstrates that we all possess an animal instinct. Used sheerly for violent ends, it's an instinct of pure destruction, but used for survival, it can be beneficial, even essential.
In addition to the principals, Gina DiPeppe delivers an effective performance as Marjorie's timid roommate, who has a moving monologue in the second act. But Melissa Meyd is a bit too studied in her portrayal of the third roommate, a social worker. Credit also goes to Mitch Nathan for his grisly makeup design.
Mastrosimone's script becomes far-fetched at times - primarily when Marjorie fails to take advantage of a chance to escape - but if you overlook these, the playwright has created a work that does an impressive job of spurring debate.
This is where the Spotlighters' sense of responsibility truly shines.
After each performance, a staff member or volunteer from one of three area rape counseling and/or prevention services leads an audience discussion. The discussion leaders not only bring the 20-year-old play up to date, but also directly address audience concerns and questions stemming from the troubling issues the play raises.
"Extremities" might be a disturbing play to watch, but it's an important one, particularly if audience members stay for the post-performance talk.
Show times at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 11. Tickets are $12. Call 410-752-1225.
The Theatre Project schedule has a few additions and changes.
The biggest news is that performance artist Karen Finley will perform her latest solo show, "Shut Up and Love Me," on April 5-14. Like Holly Hughes, who appeared at the Theatre Project last season, Finley was one of the "NEA Four" - four performance artists whose 1990 National Endowment for the Arts grants were withdrawn because their work didn't meet the government's standards of decency. Finley has said her new work explores the problems of "trying to find a sensible way of living within a code of being desired."
"Shut Up and Love Me" replaces the premiere of former Marylander David Drake's one-man show, "Son of Drakula," which has been postponed to the fall. Robert P. Mrozek, the theater's executive director, explained that Drake's piece has gained a co-producer, New York's Dance Theater Workshop, and that "the dates have been moved to a later time to complement both of our schedules." He added that the postponement also allows Drake to attend an international Dracula festival this spring, at which he might "glean new information about his heritage."
A slight change in the dates also has been made for the Stephanie Powell Dance Company. The local African-American troupe will now perform Feb. 23-24. Mrozek said he's still trying to work out the details to bring Theatre Company Jerusalem to Baltimore in March.
In addition, Mrozek announced that acclaimed Indian tabla drummer Sandip Burman will perform in concert April 1. And in May, for the third year in a row, the Theatre Project will present Danceteria, an anthology of dance pieces by companies from Baltimore and New York.
Moving to Thursdays
Beginning next week, the theater column will move to Thursdays. The change is being made in part to better serve Baltimore's community theaters. A Thursday column will allow community theater reviews to appear closer to the weekend, when the shows are performed, and in many cases will allow the reviews to appear soon after the show opens.