Rhubarb, or How to Play with a Rollergirl features two members of the American National Roster of Nighttime Oracles, sent to set a few things right in the central characters' lives. One of 'em carries a clipboard that reflects his itinerary, only this clipboard doesn't hold any papers, and it's clear plastic to boot. It's a clever prop, an obvious nod to this guy's omniscience and lofty powers of observation.
But if he's that omniscient, then what the gosh-darn heck is he doing with a clipboard at all? Hmmmmmmm?
That's a quibble—but I think the observation does speak to the gimmickry that drives a lot of this world-premiere MOXIE Theatre production. As a sought-after local director, Esther Emery is so wonderfully conceptual that you expect she'd throw a couple otherworldly figures into her maiden script. She's also written a fairly tight romantic comedy here, and she's responsible for several clever enhancements overall. But MOXIE, bless it, takes its portrayals of femininity extremely seriously—and to that extent, this show is so short-sighted that it's very nearly out of character for the group.
Bi, ballsy rollergirl Karen (Chrissy Burns) swills beer for breakfast and slings pizza at night to support her addiction to roller derby; the rest of the day, she doesn't give a flaming frig whether you live or die. She'll eventually move in with petite Cecelia (Jeannine Marquie), a sexually repressed, self-effacing painter whose pristine portraits of vegetables line the walls of her Seattle-area condo and whose entire social life involves phone calls to her mom.
Karen will make short work of Cecelia's hermetic lifestyle, and the oracles will teach Karen a few things about her own errant ways as the two unlikely paths converge.
The neat thing about the girls' initial meeting is its polar shadings. Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg has made sure there's absolutely nothing—not the slightest hint of mannerism or appearance—to suggest these two will hit it off.
Burns can drink my beer anytime; her Karen's terrific at zeroing in on Cecelia's perceived shortcomings. For her, the condo isn't so much a residence as a laboratory, with Cecelia as her project. And catch the hilarious passage about Mozart's opera The Magic Flute. It's lightning fast, but Burns and Marquie play it for all it's worth.
At its core, though, this show never really celebrates female sexuality to the degree it thinks it does. It's one thing for Karen to break down Cecelia's inhibitions as the oracles look on—but ironically, Karen becomes the greatest obstacle of all to Cecelia's epiphany. The female sexual self, I submit, is hardly the exclusive product of lesbianism or bisexuality, any more than it's the exclusive product of heterosexuality. This play looks like it's trying, and mightily, to state the opposite.
“I'm concerned,” Emery says in the program notes, “about the psychology that allows adult women to give responsibility for our sexual selves to others instead of taking that power for ourselves.” Well and good—except that Emery's play features a lead character who shirks just that duty. Cecelia slowly gives herself over to the one and only person who instigates her coming of age, and that's hardly the stuff of liberation. The girls trade gentle kisses and playfully jostle each other at the end of the show—those scenes are cute, but they only reinforce the idea that Cecelia's giving it up to the first exciting person to come along, not that she's found her own path. This review is based on the production of March 1. Rhubarb, or How to Play with a Rollergirl runs through March 9 at the Lyceum space, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown. $20. 619-544-1000 or www.moxietheatre.com.