by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

There’s dramatic tension—and then there’s traumatic tension. Molotov Theatre Group’s absolutely riveting production of Extremities—William Matrosimone’s wicked good play about a wicked rape attempt—delivers a sustained electric charge of tension of the dramatic sort, but now and again amps up the voltage to a point of potential trauma where a fuse might blow. The full-on experience of this force field—in the close quarters of the DC Arts Center—is not for the faint of heart or recently assaulted. (That must be said by way of warning.) But for theatergoers prepared for emotions in extremis—and a stinging story line that turns pins and needles into blunt instruments—this one’s a winner.

At the beginning of the play, Marjorie, alone in the remote farmhouse she shares with two female roommates, fends off a fiendish intruder who tries to rape her. As played spell-bindingly by Sherry Berg, Marjorie is petite next to the hulking predator Ray, played with sly menace by Alex Zavistovich. The scene with the attempted rape—which comes but five minutes into the play—is deeply disturbing. My advice to anyone who finds this scene hard to watch: Pay attention to the artful acting. Notice how extraordinarily Berg and Zavistovic embody, instant to instant, their characters’ authenticity. Observe the details by which this duo does their high-risk duel with completely credible intention and  transparent emotion. See the taut precision with which director Michael Wright and Zavistovic (doubling as fight choreographer) have staged this crime scene. You might have to detach and distract yourself that way, because the brain can barely contain the actual action.

There’s no spoiler in saying what happens next (this story point is in all of Molotov Theatre Group’s promotion): Marjorie turns the tables on her attacker. She disables and binds him, cages him in the fireplace, and begins referring to the now-cowering beast as Animal. The plot tension, which first turned on “Will he hurt her and how bad?,” now goes into turnabout:  “Will she hurt him and how bad?” For anyone who has ever entertained fantasies of exacting revenge against an assailant, this show will be especially satisfying. Like watching Kill Bill in a cozy black box theater.

The whole play takes us to outer edges of the nexus between art and real life. And the aforementioned tension is relieved only rarely. There are some amusing moments and one-liners, but don’t expect a whole scene’s worth of  laugh-out-loud comic respite. In fact, the only real breathers from this breathtakingly intense drama are the brief blackouts between scenes. The first one is particularly welcome, when, after witnessing the horrific rape attempt, we can dimly see Zavistovich the actor get himself roped and hogtied before going back into character as restrained Animal. There’s momentary reassurance in being reminded that the monster we’ve been watching was artistry not actuality.

You might think the suspense of that near-rape scene would be hard to top. But Mastrosimone has masterfully crafted a sequence of scenes thereafter that ramp up the drama by taking us deep into the dynamics between Marjorie and her two housemates, Terry  and Patricia. They arrive on the scene and find Marjorie intent on putting the Animal down—not down as in derided, down as in dead and buried—and she wants them to be accomplices. Sure, sounds far fetched, but the way this all unfolds is devilishly clever and engaging.

We get to know now three particular women and see in fascinating detail how they each deal with the situation. Remember how Sex and the City gave us four women, all coping with men in illuminatingly distinct ways and then disagreeing with one another about it? Well, here we have three, and it’s more like Sex and the Shithead. Picture Terry, played with simpering uncertainty by Jennifer Osborn, as a sort of Charlotte. And imagine Patricia, played with no-nonsense level-headedness by Alexia Poe, as mirroring Miranda. Then think of Sherry Berg’s Marjorie as a character from another world altogether: She’s more like Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer—she’s ready to off the wolfman. What Mastrosimone’s high-stakes story has in store next is not only Marjorie’s revenge but irreparable damage to three women’s friendship.

One has to marvel at what Molotov Theatre Group has managed to accomplish in this small space on a spare budget. Matt Vossekuil’s lighting design together with uncredited sound and set design create a bare-bones environment in which the fine cast make present compelling characters—and where a powerful play just really plays.

Because of the potentially triggering content of this work, I felt a responsibility to do my subjective best to vett it for gratuitous or pandering elements. I also wanted to offer an informed opinion as to whether it could be recommended for date night, or whether instead—with an obvious Animal onstage—it would appeal to the audience for Animal House. I can report that I found nothing that would give me pause before I gave it praise. To the contrary, I found evidence of the theater company’s heightened conscientiousness—including this program note: “October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If you or someone you care about is being abused go to http://womenshealth.gov/violence-against-women/.”

This don’t-miss production of Extremities exemplifies everything that’s best about DC’s thriving small-theater scene: wonderful writing and performances, provocative content, a vivid window on the world, worthy insight into who and why we are. When you go, expect to want to talk about it after. The play is decidedly important, but that conversation might be more so.