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No Witnesses: Karen Allen Goes To Necessary Extremes

extremities molly and jamesAll photos by Abby LePage

By Nichole Dupont

If you’re looking for a light comedy or an offbeat musical to cap off a perfect summer night in the Berkshires, then Extremities (directed by Karen Allen at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theatre now through July 27) is not for you. But, if you’re looking for heady dinner conversation and contemplation weeks after you’ve visited the stage, then this intense two-hour drama, written by William Mastrosimone, is a gripping must-see production.

From the get-go, Allen, who starred in the original 1982 off Broadway run of Extremities — Susan Sarandon and Farah Fawcett also played the role of Marjorie in the some 300 performances that season — knew the risks of directing a play which has rape and violence at its core. “It throws the conversation out there,” Allen says. “It’s a conversation that people don’t really want to have. But it’s a meaningful story that we’re telling and people shouldn’t shy away from it.”

Mastrosimone certainly didn’t shy away from the subject when he tackled the play — which took him four days to write — back in 1980. According to Allen, who got a first glimpse of the script, she spoke with the writer about his sad inspiration for penning Extremities at a time when DNA testing was non-existent and the subject of rape was even more taboo than it is today.

“Bill had a friend who met him for the last time before she moved away,” Allen recalls. “She had been raped repeatedly through the course of the night by a man who broke into her apartment. She had one opportunity when the attacker turned his back on her to light a cigarette but she was too afraid to do anything. Too afraid of death. He was arrested, went to trial, but there was no substantial evidence. After the trial, he walked by her and said ‘wait until the next time I get you.’ She couldn’t live that way anymore and moved 3,000 miles away. Running.”

extremities roomatesPerhaps to avenge his friend’s torturous experience, or to find some closure, Mastrosimone gave the main character in his play, Marjorie, a gift. A small opportunity that turns a would-be rape into a high intensity hostage situation, with Marjorie (played in the BTG production by an appropriately trembling and angry Molly Camp) as the captor and her attacker Raul (portrayed by James McMenamin with charm and convincing sociopathic, foul-mouthed unpredictability) as captive. Marjorie’s roommates Terry (the statuesque and talented Kelly McCreary) and Patricia (Miriam Silverman) walk into the fray not knowing who is crazier, the man hogtied in the fireplace or the shaken woman demanding that he be buried alive for his invasion of her sanctity with the intent to maim and kill.  With intermittent moments of pure darkness, lots of vulgar, violent language, and the occasional odd (thank god) moment of humor, we are stricken, thankful for a brief intermission and even more thankful at curtain call. If just for the chance to breathe and take in the violence that hovers very near the edge of reality. Apparently, Allen and her cast feel the same way.

“At the end of rehearsal days I did tend to limp home,” she says. “We cut our rehearsal days to a straight six; it was impossible to stay on that level of intensity for a full week. There are about 20 casual lines in the play, the rest are at an 8, 9, or 10. It’s an enormous demand on everyone. We have our punchy moments; we have to. The adrenaline is always high.”

Allen says she is ever grateful to fight director Lisa Kopitsky for staying on the set for more than the obligatory few days.

“She’s there every day. I wanted somebody with us the whole time. The scenes are so physical and it was important for everyone to feel safe and come at the play with the same kind of abandon that they would any other show.”

Indeed, the cast of Extremities is seemingly natural when the many violent scenes play out sequence by sequence. But the reality of this judge and jury production is that even since the original production, violence, particularly violence against women, has made for an unsafe environment in this country — from college campuses, to family rooms, to supermarket parking lots.

“The percentages and statistics are really quite horrifying,” Allen says. “Rape is a crime that almost always happens behind closed doors. And violence begets violence. There is an animal possession in all of us. That part of ourselves that can rise up. Marjorie becomes as brutal as he [Raul] is. She is reduced to that brutality for the sake of survival.”

Directing the play is a genesis for Allen, and may also be for those who see it and wonder — in the quiet, sticky night, after the curtains have dropped — what would you do?

Extremities by William Mastrosimone
Now through July 27, 2013
Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theatre Stockbridge
Tickets: $45, For mature audiences only
(413) 298-5576

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Posted by Nichole on 07/15/13 at 07:18 AM • Permalink