Rape is one of those things that is difficult to portray effectively on stage. But on the opening night of Extremities last week, it was totally believable. Ripe with aggressive sexual energy and relentless degradation, the first half hour of the play was wildly unpleasant to witness, and it’s a sentiment I’m sure most, if not all of my fellow audience shared.
The show is set in New Jersey in the 1982, which is around the time it was written. We know that mobile phones did not exist, and back then a woman’s sexual history was admissible in court during a rape trial. And yet, Extremities remains an important and relevant, depressingly so, piece of theatre — what with high profile cases like Brock Turner’s, among many. Like then, we still live in a society that often blames the victim rather than the perpetrator.
Emmy winner William Mastrosimone, who wrote the play, was inspired by the real-life experience of a rape survivor whose perpetrator was never convicted. There was even a film adaptation made in 1986. This version in particular is produced by the Intercultural Theatre Institute’s graduating cohort of actor-students from Singapore, Malaysia, and India. This might be a graduation performance, but it is no less powerful than one performed by veterans, and it can help that the director was Aarne Neeme, a veteran who’s directed well over 300 productions since 1962.
Marjorie, who’s played by Hau Guei Sze (Zizi), lazes around home in a nightdress and red robe after her housemates have left for work. Dorothy Ng’s set is relatively simple, but more than adequate in showing a comfortable flat shared by three young women at the start of their careers. Well, two of them anyway. After getting stung by a wasp, Marjorie stumbles and leaves the door unlocked by accident. Of course, Raul (Lakshmana KP) has to let himself in and ask for a Joe. After Marjorie asks him to leave — “There’s no Joe here” — he tries to use the phone… by pulling out the cord.
The pair are brilliant in this scene: Lakshmana’s cool demeanour unravelling slowly to reveal his monstrous side while Zizi gets increasingly flustered and nervous, making up claims that her ‘husband’ was upstairs sleeping. His intentions are apparent by now, and she fights back, but not before a particularly intense moment where Majorie is pinned down and tortured with a pillow. That sense of helplessness is palpable in the theatre, silent except for muffled screams. She later manages to grab a can of wasp repellent and sprays the contents in Raul’s face. Then, there is a blackout — the first of many. When the lights come up, Marjorie has tied up her attacker.
Extremities is a drama, and it’s not without comical parts, as dark as they are. Like when her housemates return home to find a man bleeding in their fireplace, they decide to bring out some wine and cheese. Or when Raul tells the women he can’t vomit because he “doesn’t want to ruin your lovely carpet”. These parts are necessary to relieve the nerves.
Caroline Chin plays the ditzy Terry, the child-like woman who wanted nothing to do with the situation. Compared to Caroline’s nervous energy, Pooja Mohanraj’s Patricia is the humorous level-headed academic. But even all that patience starts to wear through the Raul’s endless web of sardonic lies and manipulations, leading the pair to doubt Marjorie’s story. Marjorie is furious, and Zizi captures that rage with great skill. A favourite moment is when her flatmates decide to get medicine for Raul from the chemists, it’s only Marjorie who has enough cash left for it.
It’s a genius piece of writing that’s not so much about the culture of rape than it is about understanding the injustices sexual violence victims have to endure, like the possibility that their attacker may return and trauma that takes a long time, if ever, to get over. And with a dastardly convincing rape attempt scene and terrific chemistry between the ensemble, Extremities is not something I’m likely to forget anytime soon.
‘Extremities’ played from 29 November to 1 December 2018 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.
Photo Credits: Bernie Ng