There's nothing funny about rape, but one way people deal with trauma is by cracking jokes. 1 SW33T R1DE, the latest production from Mercury Players Theatre, uses black humor and other realistic notes to excellent effect to tell a believable, interesting and even educational story about sexual assault.
We want art to show us something that is out of the ordinary yet grounded in a reality we recognize, and 1 SW33T R1DE -- written by Rob Matsushita, directed by Jessica Jane Witham and showing at the MercLab space -- really succeeds in that respect. The show opens on a startling note, but one that makes perfect sense, as the main characters, four college-age friends, are introduced.
That first scene starts with just two of these characters and lets us see the interplay between them; many scenes that follow use the same technique, sending the remaining pair offstage for plausible enough reasons. (All of the action takes place inside an apartment living room whose comfortable shabbiness rings true.) It's smart writing, in part because it creates subtle tension as we wait for one particular set to come together, and even more because it treats the principals like authentic people enmeshed in a long-present dynamic.
And when the dynamic is disturbed by the abduction and gang rape of Tina (played by Dana Pellebon), and her subsequent violent rescue by Morris (Erik Julian Hughes), the disturbance shows. Pellebon, especially, chatters with a mix of emotions -- rage, embarrassment, despair, bitterness -- she can hardly hold in, and her sporadic explosions shake the house. You believe her. She's aptly cast too, in that she's tall and strong, which just highlights, by contrast, Tina's vulnerability.
The vulnerability spills over, affecting the rest of the group. And as it explores how they respond, 1 SW33T R1DE works not because it focuses on the momentousness of the rape, but because it deals with the mundanity of it. Life doesn't come to a halt simply because something horrible has happened, and the tragedy isn't an isolated event. Tina's boyfriend (Christopher A. Braunschweig) realizes how much of an impact the attack is going to have on his life, and feels terrible that such a thing should even occur to him. As for Tina herself, her whole reaction to the situation hinges on her prescient understanding that it will be part of her everyday life, to a greater or lesser degree, for a long time to come.
Because the characters are all bright young things, they use gallows humor to fend off their fear. It's thoroughly funny and thoroughly organic -- and as such, impossible to maintain as the hour-long story takes a scary turn and grows darker. When, after two fruitlessly Kafkaesque attempts to seek aid from the authorities, help finally arrives in the form of the allusively named Detective Genovese, the relief in the room is palpable. Warmly played by Kathy Lynn Sliter, Genovese manages to impart useful real-life information without breaking the spell of the show.
1 SW33T R1DE features a lot of adult language, but is a play parents could bring a teenager to. It's thoughtful, convincingly acted and well directed.