The opening moments of Frank Theatre's "Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again." might almost lull its audience into the expectation of a light romantic comedy. Grant Henderson plays an eager suitor, lavishing compliments and flowers. Joy Dolo dodges his embraces as the coyly reluctant object of his attention.
Don't be fooled. What follows is about as sweet and fanciful as a slap in the face.
Indeed, playwright Alice Birch's work seems to delight in setting up expectations and then flaying them in savage detail.
In another scene a couple (Emily Grodzik and Gabriel Murphy) sit at a table, a tiny velvet ring box between them. Clearly a proposal has just taken place. He anticipates a heart and flowers moment. She sees a business negotiation in which she's expected to pony up goods and services in return for agreeing to become chattel.
This 70-minute piece is a series of such scenes, each a little more pointed than the last, that dissect the role of language and cultural norms in shaping women's roles, perceptions and psyches. The scenes aren't connected in any linear sense. Rather, each takes on a theme, displayed in titles projected above the actors' heads, such as "Revolutionize the Language (Invert It)" or "Revolutionize the World (Do Not Marry)."
"Revolt" is a challenging undertaking, with a skeletal script that offers only cryptic clues in terms of setting, stage directions and even the number of actors. It's up to those staging the work to give it shape and space, a task that director Wendy Knox and her six-person ensemble tear into with gusto.
Many of the scenes they create are harrowing. In one, three generations of women sit in harsh white spotlights. A barbed dialogue between the grandmother (Charla Marie Bailey) and mother (Jane Froiland), punctuated by screams from the granddaughter (Grodzik), vividly conjures a toxic history of denial, rage and self-loathing, culminating in an act of stunning violence. In another, Dolo writhes on the floor in a blisteringly raw declaration of outrage.
There are splashes of humor — Henderson as an employer attempting to pacify Bailey with a chocolate bar ("But it makes women happy"); Froiland as a grocery clerk scolding Dolo for exposing herself in the produce section ("You'll have to pay for those melons; we literally cannot resell those melons") — but they serve as the merest flashes of light in a darkly chaotic vision.
Frank Theatre has never shied away from tough work. Insistent, subversive and ultimately compelling, "Revolt" hews to that spirit.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.