Torn from Memory: ‘Ripped’ World Premiere by Z Space

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“Men are like that: they believe their ‘thing’ is irresistible and that a [..] woman must be ‘easy’ because she’s not a virgin anymore.”
– Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis

[NOTE: This show employs repeated use of strobe lighting and centers around the topic of sexual assault.]

There’s a moment in Ripped when lead character Lucy, adorned in a sheer top, mentions that as she was leaving the house her grandmother told her “You look like a whore”. Granny, as Lucy notes, didn’t even bother with subtlety – just straight to shame. The guy to whom Lucy is telling this is dressed in leg-baring chinos, which Lucy correctly guesses as having been a non-issue – men are rarely (if ever) told to cover up for looking “indecent”. The last thing she needs is for anyone to think she “wanted it”.

The words “you wanted it” pop up a couple of times over the course of the play. They illustrate complexity of sexual and bodily agency. Lucy is often clear about her sexual interests, something that is immediately thrown back at her when she reports that she’s been raped. She’s grilled about her sexual history and eventually asked by one character why she would continue to have further (seemingly pleasant) contact with the man she claims raped her. By making one conscious choice, she’s punished for the choices she didn’t make. But that’s just the start of it.

And it’s that more-grounded complexity that works in Ripped’s favor, especially when compared to Anna Ziegler’s Actually, which recently received an excellent production by the Aurora. Comparison of the two works is inevitable: both written by playwrights who are Jewish women (which factors into the plot of Actually); both deal with the campus sexual assault; both victims are Freshman women attempting to leave their comfort zones; both begin “the morning after” before flashing back to central characters’ first meeting. The two plays even have similar running times.

But what differentiates Bublitz’s play from Ziegler’s is how the former uses its three characters compared to the latter’s two. Actually is literally a “he said/she said” piece. Ripped focuses on one character – Lucy – and her relationship with two men, high school sweetheart Bradley and UC Berkley classmate Jared. In any other context, the dialogue and scenario would pin this play as a rom-com. That makes the outcome all the more tragic.

Before I go on, I should mention that I’ve known Rachel Bublitz a number of years now: I’ve submitted to, read for, recorded with, and gotten a t-shirt from her 31 Plays in 31 Days project (yes, I still wear the shirt); we’ve both written for similar projects and organizations; and I’ve publicly read for her quickly-written monologues and her full-length French spy thriller. Also, I was recently in a play directed by a woman who directed a Rachel script that featured the funniest two-word phrase in the English language.

Still, I’ve reviewed a sex-based world premiere of hers before and I intend to be equally objective here. Besides, it’s my having hung out with Rachel so many times that I was able to see certain shades of her within Lucy, a San Diego transplant to the Bay Area. It’s Lucy’s all-too-human awkwardness that makes one want to root for her to get the guy she almost maces upon their first meeting. She isn’t a klutz so much as a stranger on edge in a new environment.

It’s that hint of potential danger that lurks around the would-be rom-com courtship of she and Jared like a shark. Were this a rom-com, Lucy’s anxiety would be played for laughs and her dilemma of choosing between two men would lead to some grand romantic gesture. Instead, it’s a reminder of the fact that women are constantly aware of a real danger lurking wherever the go. That’s why when Lucy wakes up hungover in the bed of the lovable Jared only to find her dress ripped to shreds on the floor, it’s as heart-stopping for her to hold the pieces as it is for us to watch. (Mercifully, director Lisa Steindler directs these scenes with a restrained naturalism that doesn’t negate the impact of the actions.)

This same feeling occurs when Lucy heads back to San Diego for Thanksgiving and meets with he’s jealous of her new Bay Area life and can feel her drifting away, despite having given his blessing for her to date at school. His discomfort is relatable, but Lucy’s unease is understandable, as his aggression – first passive, then less so – shows that she can’t even rely on her hometown to be a designated safe space for her.

One of the play’s most clever devices is to use flashbacks so that Lucy can reassess her relationship with both guys. If you’ve read my reviews before then you know I’m not a fan of full blackouts unless it’s the end of an act. Still, Ripped uses them to explore the “photographic” nature of memory, using the aforementioned strobes as camera flashes appearing to occur within the mind. Photos fade and just as easily as they can reveal details one doesn’t notice on first glance. Both Lucy and the guys are all different people from scene to scene, so they almost become different characters from flash to flash. (One unsettling montage has Jared and Bradley on stage together dressed in the same red flannel.)

If it seems as though I’m dancing around any straightforward description of the plot, that’s intentional. The narrative is intentionally, well, ripped so as to show both action and repercussion. I could tell you that after waking up in Jared’s bed Lucy reports that she’s been raped, but that would oversimplify both the characters and their relationship to one another. Asking who they are and how they know one another is what keeps the play from reducing them to political slogans. Lucy’s memory is called into doubt by everyone – Jared, Bradley, the police, etc. – and that’s because she isn’t recalling a person or event as simple as the “guy jumping out of the bushes” she’s expecting. If I were to just talk straight about the plot it would undermine the complexity of the story and characters therein. There are parts of this story you’ll only get if you see it yourself.

Speaking of which, I picked a pretty awkward night to do so. There was a photographer in the back row – I don’t know if he was officially commissioned by Z Space or not, but the constant loud clicking of his camera shutter kept pulling me out of the show. Also, that saw a woman in attendance with what-I’m-guessing-was her support dog. The dog would only stay still for tiny increments, giving the show another major distraction that pulled away from what was happening on stage. The latter isn’t the company’s fault, but it did hinder my absorption of the show.

Fortunately, the action on stage was interesting. I mentioned that Colm McNally’s set uses photo flashes for strobes, so it makes sense that the all-white set is designed like a photo studio, complete with curved background. The only set pieces are Jared’s bed (which doubles as Bradley’s car, thanks to Hannah Clague’s cleverly placed seat belts) and table. Settings are accentuated by McNally’s lights and Sara Huddleston’s soundscapes.

Given that title of the play is a double entendre for both the narrative and the lead character’s “lucky dress”, kudos to Christina Dinkel for providing the necessary threads. A lot of the clothing is muted enough so that when major splashes of color do appear (the aforementioned red flannel, Lucy’s dress, the sweater Bradley gives her as a gift), their significance is immediately easy to recognize.

In addition to Lisa Steindler’s subtle-but-effective staging choices, I was pleased to see Cutting Ball’s Maya Herbsman brought on as the show’s intimacy director – a position for which she’s both trained and certified. Both Steindler and Herbsman create nuance in the action with material that could easily have gone over-the-top, which would have taken away its impact. Doing so would have been a disservice to the cast, led by Krystle Piamonte as Lucy. I recall last seeing her in Inside Out & Back Again, one of the best shows I saw last year, and she does just as well here. Daniel Chung’s turn as Jared sees him finally working with a script that serves him better than that of last year’s Office Hour at the Berkeley Rep, though I didn’t completely buy him as being his character’s age. Same with Edwin Jacobs as Bradley: he’s a damn-good actor (especially in the scene conveying Bradley’s growing rage), it’s just that I’ve seen this local funnyman in too many “adult” scenarios to buy him as someone who just graduated high school.

Still, good work all around.

Ripped (Rachel Bublitz) world premiere by Z Space (2019) - questionnaire
Post-show questionnaire. Photo by Me.

When I compared this show to Actually above, it wasn’t for the sake of saying that one was better than the other. Quite the contrary, it proves why there’s a need for more stories like this told by people who traditionally don’t have the opportunity to speak. The two plays are both similar and different the way to reports of sexual assaults from different campuses would likely be both similar and different. These aren’t stories that fit into simple boxes, because doing that would allow them to be easily dismissed. And in a world where reporting sexual assault is becoming increasingly dangerous for the accusers, the last thing these stories need is to be dismissed out-of-hand.

Though I didn’t see the show in the best of conditions – and I have some mixed feelings about the Lucy-Jared “confrontation” scenes – I am glad I got to see this show. Despite not wanting to ask easy question, audiences are, in fact, offered the above questionnaire at the end of the show. I didn’t take one. Not because I was afraid of the answers, but because I’m still reassessing what I saw compared to what I think I saw.

GRADE:                                                      B+

Ripped is scheduled to run until the 15th of June at the Z Below stage of Z Space in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 80 minutes with no intermission.
NOTE that the show employs frequent use of strobe lighting and centers around the topic of sexual assault.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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