The story of a porn writer with family problems, Paula Vogel’s Hot ‘N’ Throbbing is a challenging play, dealing with issues even a professional theater company might have trouble bringing to life.
Plaeides Productions’ version works about half the time.
Here we have a single mom, Charlene (Betz Bigelow), trying to raise her two adolescent children (Nicole Kelly and Sequoia McDowell) while working as a writer of “women’s erotica.” Into the plot comes Charlene’s ex-husband, Clyde (Jeremy Gibson), instantly revealed to be a physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic.
It seems a simple-enough premise. But then comes the experimental element of two fantasy characters — Charlene’s blatantly erotic, female inner voice, called VoiceOver (Bettina Freese), and her male counterpart, The Voice (Adam Arthur) — who act out Charlene’s inner thoughts and fears, suddenly making Hot ‘N’ Throbbing a far more demanding play to perform.
Other, lesser themes are also explored, including taboos such as voyeurism, pornography, incest and bondage. But understanding sexual violence is the main idea here. And believe it or not, this is actually a comedy — at least most of the time.
Playwright Paula Vogel has pushed these buttons before, winning a Pulitzer in 1998 for How I Learned to Drive, which drew ire for its humanizing of the main character’s incestuous uncle. And Plaeides has stepped up to her challenge before, too; the community-theater group performed How I Learned to Drive in its 1998-’99 season.
Like Hot ‘N’ Throbbing, Drive relied on a fantasy element — in this case, an amusingly modern Greek chorus — to help deliver its message. Of particular note in Throbbing, too, is Freese’s sultry portrayal of VoiceOver; the actor does an outstanding job of reacting to a character — Charlene — with whom she cannot interact. This culminates in the play’s dramatic final moments, with Freese portraying, in a double fantasy aside, an unsuspecting character in a snuff film, while Bigelow’s Charlene decides to once again return to the arms of the abusive Clyde. As the action grows more and more tense, the two women mouth the same lines, but the only voice the audience can hear is Freese’s frightened, tortured one. It’s an effective moment.
A handful of effective moments, however, does not a successful production make.
Director Nick Lawrence seems to have a noteworthy sense of staging, but his inattention to the subtler scenes breaks the dramatic pace. He seems to have worked mainly on the chaotic parts, forgetting that without the less-exciting moments, the explosions don’t mean as much.
Plaeides Productions presents Hot ‘N’ Throbbing at the Be Be Theatre (20 Commerce St.) Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. through June 28. Tickets cost $10/general, $9/students, $8/advance (available at Future Visions, Green Eggs & Jam and The Wine Guy). For more information, call 665-9514 or visit wncmarket.com/sevensiblings. (Plaeides is donating a portion of the proceeds to Helpmate, an Asheville-based group working with victims of domestic violence.)