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Center Stage

‘Extremities’ raises questions of violence and victim blaming

4/23/2014

“Extremities,” by Tallgrass Theater, plays at the Rex Mathis Auditorium, 11401 Vine St., in West Des Moines, through April 26.

“Extremities,” by Tallgrass Theater, plays at the Rex Mathis Auditorium, 11401 Vine St., in West Des Moines, through April 26.

Lately, downtown theater has broken through to a new level at the Social Club, but some of this year’s most exciting work took place out west. The Tallgrass Theater Company near Valley Junction has brought two radical challenges: “True West” was an edgy drama that alternated different actors in the primary roles, and now “Extremities” features bondage, torture an actress in little more than a slip, and the closest thing to rape you’ll ever see onstage. And it’s wonderful, actually.

First impressions all have to do with the woman in skimpy threads. KtMarie (sic) Scarcello is onstage as we enter. In time, we learn she’s Marjorie, one of three women sharing a home, but for now she’s queen of the castle. The soundtrack includes Lorde’s “Royal,” and she’s humming along, lazing from sofa to easy chair. These and the rest of the set look comfy and pallid — except for the black fireplace, which turns out to be the castle dungeon.

It doesn’t take long to toss someone in chains, either. William Mastrosimone’s script opens with a fury that reverses the serene preamble. A stranger bullies in, using Marjo’s name like a weapon (his name, Raul, is eventually revealed at the play’s end), and then after he’s got her down, at his mercy, there erupts an even more violent reversal. The man ends up hogtied in the fireplace.

The production emphasizes the intensity by forgoing intermission and separating scenes with blackouts. Against the dark appear news clips of sexual assault (redundant, after the first), and even when the roommates return, their initial cluelessness offers but a moment’s comic relief. Raul may be in a cage, but he’s cagy. Zander Morales never quite masters the Hispanic accent, but he’s got a terrific vicious grin, whether flinging Marjo around or, bound and blindfolded, playing on the roommates’ sympathy. “Now I know,” he snarls, “how Christ felt.”

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After all. Isn’t he the victim? Isn’t this talk of rape his word against Marjo’s?

Good questions, which give rise to a chilling twist, as the roommates turn on Marjo. Flouncing around in next to nothing, why, she’s asking for it! Less convincing are their silences while victim and attacker tear into each other, though that’s more the playwright’s problem. Nicole Hargrove, in her debut, works up a pained inwardness when her own rape story emerges, we get why she’s tongue-tied. Megan Hartwick, on the other hand, succeeds only in assertive moments. But Scarcello, first to last, has a presence nothing short of titanic. It’s her screams that make us believe in the assault, and later, when you see her juggle a hammer, grim-faced — well, if you were her roommate, you’d think before speaking, too. 

Overheard in the Lobby: Next year’s lineup for Des Moines Performing Arts looks like a fine mix, but as a longtime Cyndi Lauper lover, I’m especially eager to catch her Tony-winning musical, “Kinky Boots.” CV                

John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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