Ashley Personett in “Collective Rage” (Micah Thompson)
“Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties” is the story of five characters named Betty with a complex web of relationships between them: Some are friends, some frenemies, some budding acquaintances, and some of them awaken parts of each other that they didn’t know existed.
Also, no, the fact that these five characters all have the same name is never addressed, we just go with it. Fortunately, Jen Silverman’s script, first produced in 2016, makes it easy to do so. Each of these characters straddles the line between archetype and individual—or rather, they all manage to exist as both at once.
Each woman and genderqueer Betty wears coveralls, the sort you might wear when working on a truck, which some of the Betties do and some could probably not come up with a more ridiculous idea if they tried. But each is customized to suit their personality.
Betty 1, who lives on the Upper East Side and is in a loveless (and even more sexless) marriage with a very boring and very rich man named Richard, wears pink coveralls and pearls. Betty 2 has her entire world turned upside down when another Betty provides her with a hand mirror with which she can examine her genitals for the first time—a horrifying prospect until it suddenly isn’t. Her coveralls, like her personality, are mauve. Betty 3, belted and in a busy print, works at Sephora but dreams of starring in the “thea-tah” after attending exactly one play and seeing how much adoration and applause it got. Betty 4 is in love with Betty 3 and is terrified of being left behind. They both grew up with Betty 5, who is fresh out of rehab and is staying hyper-focused on having sex, fixing her truck, and running her gym, where she happens to meet Betty 1.
In Fishtank Theatre’s production, Heidi Van’s costumes work brilliantly to establish both the characters and an overall aesthetic of heightened, stylized distance between the play and its audience—a distance that only underscores the moments of emotional devastation as they crack through those facades. The archetypal set-up puts the characters on pedestals, from which they are able to dive-bomb the audience with a raw intimacy.
Silverman’s script is complex. It is hilarious and unsettlingly provocative and devastatingly incisive, and for its breakneck 85-minute runtime, it is all of those things all at once, pretty much every minute. It is truly remarkable that director Katie Gilchrest is able to make sure every note of that comes across, but she does. Every joke lands, as do the emotional drops. She is also well-served by an incredible cast. Every Betty—Vanessa Severo, Ashley Personett, Mandy Ortiz, Vanessa Davis, and Jen Benkert, in Betty order—brings the most to their role, but Ortiz, with an unswerving drive of nearly manic self-confidence, and Personett, who encompasses a profound sadness via a range of impressive, sometimes Muppetish vocal work, are show-stealers among the stellar crowd.
When Fishtank moved to their new West Bottoms location just a few years ago, producing artistic director Heidi Van said the goal was to push the limits both in terms of provocative work, as well as the ways in which the physical space related to that work. “Collective Rage” most definitely does both. Mark Exline’s set design is exciting in its ingenuity. The stage sits as a runway with the audience on both sides, and the set itself is nearly entirely made up of ropes. These serve as swings, an impromptu punching bag, and more as the cast interacts in innovative ways. The simple, clean lines of the rope make a delicious background for the messiness of these characters. (Making this even more impressive, following the opening of “Collective Rage,” Fishtank is launching another show, “Spilled Milk,” and the two will play in repertory for the duration of their runs.)
The play itself is proudly, profoundly queer, including an introduction by members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The language is strong (you’ve been warned) but the heart here is stronger. This play is about love, about learning to know and value ourselves, about change—both fear of it and learning not to force it. It’s a lot to fit into one short, truly raucous comedy, but Fishtank manages to make it work.
“Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties,” a production of Fishtank Theatre, runs through March 13 at The Blackbox, 1060 Union Ave. For more information, call (816) 533-5565 or go to www.blackboxkc.com.