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Editorial

New Play Asks: What Is Consent?

By Jean Schiffman

In playwright Rachel Bublitz’s “Ripped,” murky areas abound.

When award-winning playwright Rachel Bublitz began to work on what would become “Ripped,” she knew she wanted to write about date rape, and that she would take a subtle, modulated approach to this fraught topic.

“I was fascinated with the idea of taking a subject often viewed in black and white terms and seeing it in a more nuanced way,” she says.

Specifically, she wanted to explore the concept of consent: Where is the line drawn?

Yet, to write this play felt dangerous. For one thing, as she explains by phone from Salt Lake City, where she is an adjunct professor of theater and acting at Weber State University, the play “takes the conversation to a new place, and it’s more complicated than one person is wrong, another not.” In addition, the main character, U.C. Berkeley freshman Lucy (played by Krystle Piamonte), is complex: needy, confused, awkward, at a time when we want to see strong women on stage. Says Bublitz, “I think we need… complex and nuanced characters, with wants and needs.

“There’s not a lot of room for gray areas,” she adds. In “Ripped,” murky areas abound.

When the play opens, Lucy is waking up on Monday morning after Thanksgiving weekend, nearly naked, not in her own bed. She has a bad hangover and is not sure what exactly happened the previous night after she knocked on Jared’s door with a bottle of vodka in hand.

The play’s 11 scenes are shuffled to reflect Lucy’s difficulty in remembering the sequence of events and also in order for the audience, going back and forth in time, to follow the plot subjectively. So it’s not until later that we see Lucy just after she has arrived in Berkeley in September. She knows no one, her roommate is never around, she’s unsure about finding her way across town and she carries mace for safety. Before she left her home in San Diego, she told her high school boyfriend, Bradley (Edwin Jacobs), that she wanted to be free for a while. The heartbroken Bradley is himself flawed and was a hard character for Bublitz to create, as she wanted the audience to sometimes root for him.

Drinking helps anxious Lucy to be more courageous in this unfamiliar and lonely environment.

When she meets Jared (Daniel Chung), she’s attracted to him, but, clumsy as she is, goes about establishing a relationship in all the wrong ways. By January, when school is back in session post-holiday vacation, the relationships among all three characters has changed in the ways that emotions, at that age, can seem to change abruptly and confusingly for all concerned.

Like Lucy, Bublitz came to the Bay Area from San Diego, in her case to study at San Francisco State, where she got a BA in performance, an MA in English and an MFA in creative writing and felt, she says, like a fish out of water. She was living in Berkeley when she first began working on this play, in a workshop at SF State led by Peter Sinn Nachtreib. Trained in acting, she discovered her true love, playwriting; this is her first play to be staged at a theater as influential as San Francisco’s Z Space, she says, which she finds “amazing and terrifying.”

Bublitz was influenced by Jon Krakauer’s 2015 book “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town,” about date rape at the University of Montana, and by a “This American Life” radio broadcast discussing how victims of rape don’t always respond the way we expect them to. She says, “I was really interested in exploring ways that Lucy doesn’t respond the way we think she should, or in a way that’s good for her.” We humans, she points out, don’t always process trauma in the best way.

The play went through a series of staged readings beginning in 2016, leading up to this world premiere. Along the way, it took some rewriting on Bublitz’s part for audiences to empathize with Lucy and to believe in her the way Bublitz did. At a festival in Wyoming, audience feedback indicated empathy for all three characters. At some readings, Jared was the hands-down favorite. At a reading at San Francisco Playhouse, the audience came down entirely on the side of the two male characters, which was shocking to Bublitz. “It took audience members [at readings] so long to be on Lucy’s side at all,” she says. “To make them believe in her was a challenge… . I don’t think it’s that Lucy is not relatable. Maybe she’s almost too relatable, if that makes sense.”

At Z Space’s reading at its Problematic Play Festival last October, “Ripped” turned out to be one of the most provocative pieces in the festival, says Z executive/artistic director Lisa Steindler. This premiere is her first directing gig in about 10 years. In audience discussions after the reading, not everyone agreed on what they’d witnessed as they watched the play’s non-chronological scenes.

“Whenever you walk out of a production disagreeing with your companion, and it provokes conversation—that’s a good evening of theater,” she observes. What drew her to “Ripped” was the difficult subject matter itself. “It’s not straightforward,” she says. “There’s room for interpretation. How does memory play a trick on you? Whose perception is truth? Lucy tries to piece together [a sexual act] she participated in and yet has no recollection of. I’m fascinated by the human psyche in that sense.”

Steindler is taking a non-realistic approach to production design, in harmony with the play’s nonlinear structure: cinematic lighting, stark stage. The focus is on the characters and text. She wants audience members to perceive the events of what might or might not be a date rape situation in individual ways, to decide for themselves who is culpable, moment to moment.

Ripped

May 25 → June 15

Z Below

470 Florida St., San Francisco

zspace.org