Porn, feminism and laughs in Aurora’s Rapture

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Alice (Lilian Bogovich, left), Catherine (Marilee Talkington,center), and Avery (Nicole Javier) toast to freedom in Aurora Theatre Company’s production of Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo. Below: Gabriel Marin as Don and Talkington as Catherine have a grown-up slumber party. Photos by David Allen

There’s an observation about Internet porn in Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn now at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company that is at once hilarious and trenchant. A college woman encapsulates the ease of access to porn this way: “Once you get directions from Google Maps, it seems such a hassle to unfold an actual map.”

Generational differences and technology come into play a lot in Rapture, a crackling season opener for the Aurora. Gionfriddo is a smart, feisty writer who knows her way around a joke that always contains more than a laugh. She tackles the gargantuan issue of feminism and its evolution into the 21st century and comes through with a stage full of surprising, complicated characters having passionate, always intriguing discussions.

She’s such a sharp writer, in fact, that she’s able to make a case for Betty Friedan on one end of the feminist spectrum and Phyllis Schlafly way on the other side, all the while generating laughs and bothering to imbue her characters depth and heart.

Rapture, Blister, Burn (the title comes from a lyric by Courtney Love) is essentially a two-part invention: one part involves a summer seminar in feminism called “The Fall of American Civilization” taught by a writer described by Bill Maher as the “hot doomsday chick” and attended by a housewife and a college student making a provocative reality show with her boyfriend. The other part is a mid-life crisis triangle in which former grad school friends attempt to correct the mistakes of their past and attempt to travel the roads they didn’t take. The housewife wants to trade in her porn-loving pot-head husband and kids so she can finish the degree she abandoned. And the rock star writer wants to forgo her success for the family she didn’t have.

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Director Desdemona Chiang creates a natural but propulsive rhythm to the nearly 2 1/2-hour play, and her appealing cast makes of the most of playing smart, funny people while managing to convey real emotional weight. Marilee Talkington is Catherine, the famous writer who has returned home to care for her supposedly ailing mother (Lillian Bogovich as Alice doesn’t seem nearly as infirm as the daughter makes her out to be). Talkington expertly shifts between Catherine’s intellectual prowess and her emotional confusion as she reopens an old wound.

Catherine’s mother just happens to live in the same town as two significant people from the past: her grad school roommate, Gwen (Rebecca Schweitzer), and her former boyfriend, Don (Gabriel Marin). Gwen and Don are now married with two sons. Gwen works in the home and Don is a dean at the local college. Their marriage is not what you’d call a strong one – she’s a nag, he’s a porn-addled layabout and they have financial problems – so Catherine’s arrival finds them at a particularly vulnerable moment.

To make some extra cash while taking care of her mother, Catherine offers a summer seminar. Gwen signs up and so does Avery (Nicole Javier), a bright college student with distinct views on feminism.

The play takes some surprising turns, and if it comes close to feeling like a sitcom, Gionfriddo’s insightful writing manages to subvert those comfy-cozy expectations. Even Don, the odd man out here, is sympathetic, and through his stoner fog, he displays the smarts that have been dulled by the lack of real challenges in his life. He finds moments of truth (as they all do) when he says with tenderness: “Is that just a monologue you need to say so this isn’t your fault?” It’s a great line at a great moment, but you need to see it.

There are serious issues being bandied about here – the rise of degradation as entertainment, the notion of two empowered people navigating equality, breaking through our own personal mythologies – and no easy conclusions. Rapture, Blister, Burn entertains as much as it provokes, and while it doesn’t exactly blister or burn, it comes pretty close to achieving some theatrical rapture.

Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn continues an extended run through Oct. 5 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$60. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Delighted by `Ruined,’ Nottage nabs Pulitzer

Lynn Nottage
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage. Photo by the LA Times

Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined, inspired by Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The play, about a Congolese brothel run by a woman named Mama Nadi, is about a country torn apart by civil war and about a woman who is either protecting women or profiting from them. The play began at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last year and is now off Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York.

The 44-year-old Nottage told the Associated Press: “I wanted to tell the story of these women and the war in the Congo and I couldn’t find anything about them in the newspapers or in the library, so I felt I had to get on a plane and go to Africa and find the story myself. I felt there was a complete absence in the media of their narrative. It’s very different now, but when I went in 2004 that was definitely the case.”

Nottage’s best known work, Intimate Apparel, had a successful run in the Bay Area with a 2005 production from Mountain View’s TheatreWorks. That same year, San Francisco’s Lorraine Hansberry Theatre produced Nottage’s Crumbs from the Table of Joy.

Less successful was a 2002 production of Nottage’s Las Meninas at San Jose Repertory Theatre.

Nottage holds degrees from Brown University and the Yale School of Drama. She also is an alumna of New Dramatists. She is currently a visiting lecturer at the Yale School of Drama and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, filmmaker Tony Gerber, and daughter Ruby.

The Pulitzer finalists were:
Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo, a jarring comedy that examines family and romantic relationships with a lacerating wit while eschewing easy answers and pat resolutions.
In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, a robust musical about struggling Latino immigrants in New York City today that celebrates the virtues of sacrifice, family solidarity and gritty optimism.

And this year’s jury comprised Dominic Papatola, theater critic, St. Paul Pioneer Press (chair); John M. Clum, chair, department of theater studies, Duke University; Jim Hebert, theater critic, San Diego (CA) Union-Tribune; David Henry Hwang, playwright, Brooklyn, NY; and Linda Winer, theater critic, Newsday.

Visit for a complete list of this year’s winners.

Here’s Nottage doing a radio show on the topic of Ruined, with Saidah Arrika Ekulona, who plays Mama Nadi: